GMO panic is bad policy

America’s foremost nutritional problem may well be the sheer quantity of food it consumes, but the nation is increasingly haunted by a much more arcane question about its diet: Did someone at some point tinker with its DNA?

The fear of consuming genetically modified organisms — “GMOs” to their enemies — is largely detached from science and reason. It has nonetheless become pervasive in certain generally left-leaning circles, so much so that three New England states have moved to require disclosure of genetically modified ingredients. Similar measures have been introduced in many other states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

But the U.S. House recently responded with the legislative equivalent of a genetically altered tomato hurled in the activists’ direction, passing a bill to outlaw labeling mandates.

The anti-GMO movement has a superficially appealing argument: Food manufacturers already have to disclose ingredients, caloric content, and more. So even if the dangers of genetic modification are an article of faith rather than fact, why not disclose it and let the people decide?

The trouble is that unlike the rest of the information the federal government requires labels to include, genetic modification is not an ingredient or a nutrient, but a technology — a means rather than an end. Requiring food makers to tell us whether the corn they used was genetically manipulated is like forcing them to disclose whether it was cultivated in the presence of a scarecrow. Sure, plenty of people might find this information interesting, but it has no demonstrable relationship to anyone’s health.

And no one, by the way, is or should be preventing voluntary labeling of foods as GMO-free. Indeed, with corporations such as Whole Foods and Chipotle pandering to unfounded anxieties, anyone who is determined to avoid genetically modified foods should have no trouble doing so.

But government-mandated labeling would wrongly elevate the issue by suggesting that genetic modification has proven health implications. That’s why the Senate should join the House in acting to head off such labeling requirements.

While the techniques have grown much more sophisticated with scientific advances, the fact is that genetic manipulation has long made most of what we know as agriculture possible. And its modern uses are so varied as to make generalizations inherently misleading. Genetically altered crops are often criticized as facilitating herbicide use, for example, but they can just as easily obviate the need for pesticides.

Nor is there any shortage of work left to do on scientifically sound labeling. Consider, for example, how much prepared food is sold and served without so much as a calorie count attached — a fact with unimpeachable relevance to a nation of over eaters. Governments and corporations intent on improving public health should focus on providing useful information instead of legitimizing misinformation.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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