By Charles Mueller

The FDA should require manufacturers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to classify and label their products accordingly.  I say this because this is the right solution to deal with the ongoing debate that is occupying way too much of the Government’s and public’s time.  There is no reason that Congress needs to be debating bills that would ban or require the labeling of foods that have had their DNA precisely modified by today’s best biotechnologies.  There is a simple, common sense solution that the FDA is completely capable of handling on its own, without new legislation. 

First off let’s clarify what this is really about.  There are two camps at war here, the industry camp that is afraid labeling their food products that have been modified will hurt the sale of these products and the public who is really scared, probably for good reason (see DDT), of new things introduced by industry into their foods that they don’t know about or understand.  The referees in this war of ignorance are the FDA, EPA, and USDA and unfortunately they have yet to really take control.

The reality for industry here is that if done right, and explained to the public right, the labeling of food that has been genetically modified has the potential to boost sales not hurt them.  There are many great things that genetic modification can do that are almost certainly safe, like the Arctic Apple that is engineered not to brown after it has been cut.  As PhD in Biochemistry I would be surprised if science one day showed these were harmful in regards to health, regardless what metric you used to define “health”.  Industry should be using the labeling argument to promote the great things that precision genetic engineering is capable of.  Rather then spend millions lobbying Congress to ban the labeling of GMOs they should be spending those millions developing food products that will foster a better tomorrow.

Similar to how industry needs to quit pretending labeling will hurt sales, the public needs to quit pretending that all GMOs are going to hurt them.  Generalizing all GMOs as being safe or not safe is the problem to begin with.  Doing so ignores that the issue is complex and there exists a spectrum of the types of genetic modifications introduced in foods referred to as GMOs.   Some genetic modifications simply enhance certain desired traits in our foods, leading to better taste and/or nutritional content, similar to the breeding practices we’ve been using for years.  Others change growth properties or introduce pesticidal or antimicrobial properties.  The health implications for these various changes are not equivalent and it is unfortunate the scientific community has yet to properly address this reality.  The fact that GMOs have ever been tested for safety in human’s and our current methods for evaluating safety are inadequate is only helping to fuel the fear that all GMOs are potentially harmful when in many cases it is likely they aren’t.

So what is the solution here?  How do we reconcile the fear of profit loss with the fear of safety?  One solution would be to have the FDA develop a scale that quantifies the nature of the genetic modification in the food.  In the development of this scale, they should be engaging directly with the public and industry to explain and determine the classifications of GMOs.  In developing this classification system they should be incorporating the best-available-science into their judgments and identifying gaps in the research so that future studies can address these gaps to improve this system going forward. 

Following the development of this classification system, they should create regulation that requires the labeling of GMO food products using this system.  Doing this will create transparency about GMOs for both industry and the public.  Industry can use the non-controversial labels as a selling tool to be embraced and the public will get a chance to manage their own food risks.  The best part of this solution is that it finally becomes possible to monitor human consumption of GMOs and potentially identify any adverse health effects this consumption is causing, which in turn could provide new information to improve the GMO classification system.

The common sense solution to this problem is a regulatory one:  Have the FDA require labeling of GMOs based off a classification system derived from the best-available-science and stakeholder input.  Failure to do this will ensure that we continue to debate this issue and potentially hold back the uses of many of the benefits precision based genetic modification of food can bring to society.  Label the GMOs already, but only after you classify them.

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