What is real food?

Created by man or by nature?

Created by man or by nature?

Some folks seem to be up in arms today because of a vote in the House on GMO labeling. In a 275-150 vote, the House passed HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) issued a statement today about the passing of this act saying, “Advances in technology have allowed the U.S. to enjoy the safest, highest quality, most abundant, diverse and affordable supply of food and fiber mankind has ever known. With the world’s population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, biotechnology is an essential tool for our farmers to meet this demand in an environmentally sound, sustainable, and affordable way. Unfortunately, proposed Federal and State laws threaten this innovation by generating a patchwork of differing labeling requirements, which will result in inconsistent and confusing information for consumers and interfere with interstate commerce. H.R. 1599 establishes a voluntary nation-wide marketing program that gives consumers access to consistent, reliable information while protecting advancements in food production technology and innovation.”

I spent some of my morning reading HR 1599. In my reading I noticed that foods containing any genetically engineered element may be required to be labeled as genetically engineered if they contain “a material difference in the functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics, allergenicity, or other attributes between the food so produced and its comparable food”. To me this makes sense. If there is no real difference in the product, no need to make an extra cost and confusion to the consumer by pointing out how it was produced. Analogously I do not need to know whether the peanuts used to make my peanut butter were crushed by hand or a machine if the end product is the same.

One of the things this bill was intended to do was to create a nationally unified labeling system. With individual states having different labeling requirements, there presents a problem for companies who ship product to multiple states with differing and contradictory labeling requirements. Having this kind of labeling fiasco would just drive up costs for the consumer while confusing the consumer all the more.

Many are saying that this new bill creates a ban on the consumer receiving adequate access to knowledge about their food. It seems to be causing more clarity to have a unified system that the interested consumer can understand. The alternative is for them to seek out a lot of conflicting information driven by the “natural” food lobbies in each state.

The producers of food who work hard to make sure there are no genetically engineered components in their product have an interest in scaring the consumer away from genetic innovation. They are big business just like any other. So requiring labels on all genetically engineered food regardless of its functional, nutritional, allergenic, etc. similarities seems to only be an attempt to use government to influence the market in their favor. If their food is “natural”, they are free to label it as such, but requiring other companies to use labels which enhance their own marketing tactics is deceitful.

The fact is, these means of production mean a higher yield per acre and less use of potentially harmful chemicals. One can bring up monoculture as a legitimate concern. One which needs to be addressed. But attempting to kill off the benefits of genetic engineering on the whole is not the way to do that. Testing should also be done on these and all foods to make sure they are safe. Since genetically modified foods are some of the most thoroughly tested, I have no concerns here.

Still, many people are concerned. Some fear that we will get too carried away and cause lasting and irreversible harm to our food sources and thus to humanity. I agree that some of the details within the realm of genetically modified foods may need more attention. Such as the patent system and how it affects the way certain agriculture companies do business or monoculture as I have already mentioned. But the solution is not to scare the consumer away from the process outright. What do you think?

Kirk Aug

Kirk writes about science, technology, and whatever else can catch his fancy. He is currently enjoying a snack and forgot to read the label. Follow him on twitter @kirkaug.