AS THE DEBATE surrounding genetically engineered foods matures, some of the most ardent critics have refined their bottom line: They want consumers to have the right to know what they are eating and are pushing for a labeling law.
Proponents of the transformation of our food supply argue that there's nothing to label: Genetically engineered food are exactly the same as their conventional counterparts.
This bit of Orwellian logic overlooks the fact that new genetic strains are patented precisely because they are different -- preliminary testing shows consistent, measurable differences (in soybeans, for example) among biologically important active ingredients.
Aristotle's logic of treating like things alike contains an important corollary: Treat different things differently. Labeling is a bare minimum requirement of this ethical maxim. And, why not? Consumers have overwhelmingly requested labeling. In Time magazine polls, 81 percent of Americans believe genetically engineered foods should be labeled. Even biotech companies such as Novartis show Americans want genetically engineered foods to be labeled -- 93 percent, to be exact.
A remedy is at hand for Californians. The Genetically Engineered Right to Know Act, SB 1513, sponsored by Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles, would require a label for foods containing genetically engineered components. This legislation would require that any food with detectable levels of novel DNA products be identified as containing genetically modified ingredients. These foods would carry a label stating, ``Consumer Notice: Contains Genetically Engineered or Modified Products.''
Not a bad idea, some would say, considering some genetically modified foods, such as Bt corn, contain insecticidal toxins never before seen in the human diet at equivalent levels, or carry genes from viruses and bacteria never before ingested.
The 120,000-member British Medical Association, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and 60 other organizations in the United States believe this information is essential for consumers to have and that labeling is the obvious solution.
Historically, labels have provided a critical vehicle for a consumer's right to know. They identify production methods used to prepare a food crop, such as ``grown without the use of pesticides,'' ``packaged without preservatives,'' ``organic'' or ``does not contain rBGH.'' Such labels do not trumpet safety pronouncements, nor scary warnings. They only provide consumer information.
Some argue that California should wait for the federal government to take the lead on labeling, but considering that genetically engineered foods already form a large portion of our diet, this would be a head-in- the-sand approach.
California has historically been a leader in issues relating to public and environmental health. In 1986, for example, California citizens overwhelmingly voted in favor -- but against federal advice
--of labels on products containing carcinogenic and reproductive toxins. Known as Proposition 65 worldwide, this initiative has become a model for disclosure of materials present in products that could harm consumers.
The value of such a proposition is underscored by the reaction of manufacturers. Once forced into the glare of full disclosure, makers of ceramic ware no longer use lead-based glazes, wine bottlers use wax instead of lead foil to seal corks, and fertilizers containing high levels of heavy metals have been phased out.
Now California has a chance to set another progressive precedent.
Labeling policies, whether for food or pharmaceuticals, are derived from an ethic based on the simple principle of autonomy -- something Americans live, eat and breathe. We all want the freedom to make decisions affecting our own lives.
Passage of a law requiring labeling for genetically modified foods supports our right to know what we are ingesting. Consumers deserve
--at the minimum -- to be informed about products that have never passed muster by the Food and Drug Administration, which admits it does not test any genetically modified food products to establish their safety prior to commercial marketing. While companies that produce genetically altered foods are encouraged to engage in voluntary ``consultations'' with the FDA, they aren't required to do any sort of long-term environmental review of their genetically engineered products.
Another argument in favor of labeling is that only if consumers know that they have ingested genetically modified food can they report any effects. Without labels, no one will know whether the genetic revolution has made a difference in Americans' health. Only through labeling will epidemiologists be able to track any purported benefits or ill effects from ingesting transformed foods.
Given that foods derived from agricultural biotechnology contain novel proteins and genetic vectors, many citizens rightly believe they are unwittingly members of a global experiment. We would do well to heed the admonition of William Beaumont, a 19th-century ethicist who argued that any novel project should be halted if subjects are distressed, unsatisfied or have not given voluntary consent.
If we proceed with this wide-ranging experiment with our food without disclosure, the cries for a moratorium may have even greater justification. Many groups, including the British Medical Association and our own Physicians for Social Responsibility, now advocate a complete halt to all biotechnology until safety testing is done.
The authors of the labeling bill, which will be heard in front of the Senate Agricultural and Water Resources Committee on April 26, are asking for something much less intrusive.
Agricultural biotechnology should be held to the same standards of disclosure we now require of organic foods. It too should abide by established ethical principles that respect the wishes of the public. A simple label is all that it would take.
Marc Lappe is director of the Center for Ethics and Toxics (CETOS). Britt Bailey is a senior associate at the center, a Gualala-based environmental organization (www.cetos.org). They co-authored ``Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food'' (Common Courage Press, 1998).
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Last Updated on 4/25/00
By Karen Lutz