Food Matters: Argument for labeling genetically engineered foods sounds simple but it isn't

By Chuck NewcombOctober 12, 2012 

Why would anyone vote against Proposition 37, the right to know initiative requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods?

What's wrong with knowing what's in the food we eat?

It makes perfect sense to become aware of exposure to potentially dangerous substances. We have done that with cigarettes and alcohol, so why not foods that have been shown to be dangerous? Wait ... there has never been any evidence of any specific health problem with genetically modified foods.

The most reported concern with GMOs (the "O" stands for organisms) is the risk of allergic reactions. Most food allergies occur in response to certain proteins in milk, eggs, wheat, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans, and shellfish.

According to Ohio State University, the real risk for allergic reaction with GMOs stems from incorporating a protein from one of these high- allergy foods into a different food that does not cause a known allergic reaction.

This concern has been addressed by the FDA to prevent such a scenario. The FDA requires scientific evidence demonstrating genetically modified products are not incorporated with such allergenic substances.

All proteins consist of amino acids, and proteins differ from one another based on the sequence of these amino acids. Once we have consumed any protein, including GMOs, stomach acid straightens and unwinds the protein. Enzymes then break the proteins apart into smaller amino acid sequences.

The partially broken-down protein then enters the small intestines, where it is eventually broken into individual amino acids. The body then takes up the amino acids. The human body cells cannot discern what is a gene from a "natural" or genetically modified organism because they are completely unbound from the original plant.

Uninformed and often well-meaning individuals and groups have pushed for changes in laws and the removal of products in the past based purely on fear and emotions. Financially speaking, those for Proposition 37 have the most to gain while those opposed have the most to lose.

Organic and health food proponents and lawyers stand to make plenty by increased sales of products and lawsuits. Agriscience and major food producers are at risk of losing sales and increased costs. Many favoring the initiative are not so much pushing "labeling" as banning GMOs altogether.

Foods are usually genetically modified to make them more nutritious; more adaptable to environmental conditions such as drought, cold and heat; resistant to plant diseases and insects; and able to thrive in soils containing minerals that would kill traditional crops.

Consider that between now and 2060, the world's cumulative consumption of food will exceed twice the food that has been consumed since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago. It is estimated that to feed the growing population by 2050, at least 70 percent more food will be needed each year than is produced today. This can't be done without GMOs.

Many of those opposed to GMOs look to Europe for inspiration. Europeans have for years resisted this technology, although that bias appears to be waning. Recently, 41 Swedish scientists wrote an open letter to politicians and environmentalists emphasizing the need to rethink European legislation that restricts the use of GM crops.

We can't do to GMOs what we did to DDT.

DDT, a very effective insecticide, was banned after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, in which she accuses the chemical's use in an array of dangers to human health and ecological ills. Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," assesses Carson's science succinctly: "Our intake of coffee is about 50 times more carcinogenic than our intake of DDT before it was banned."

Since then, millions of poor people have died from malaria.

Other examples of misapplied science resulting in unintended negative effects include: MTBE and ethanol gasoline additives, asbestos, embryonic stem cells and man-caused global warming. Can we afford to be led once again into a promise of a safe and secure utopia based on fear and junk science?

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a masters of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at: or on his website

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a masters of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Att

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