WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan made famous the phrase “trust but verify” in his nuclear weapons negotiations with the former Soviet Union. This phrase might also be applied to the debate over final U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (N.B.F.D.S.).
Both sides of the debate on this standard have been a little disingenuous in their comments. Proponents of inclusive labeling of foods containing bioengineered ingredients invoke “transparency” and “right to know” arguments without acknowledging the widespread use of marketing strategies that seem to disparage genetically-engineered food products. Proponents of limited labeling of such foods cite scientific findings of safety while doing little to market their virtues to consumers.
\\The Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S.D.A. offered two options in defining bioengineered foods for public comment. One option would exclude from labeling requirements foods that have highly refined ingredients that contain no modified genetic material and are identical to ingredients from non-bioengineered crops. That is, labeling should focus on the nature of the product, not the process that yielded it. The other option focused on that process, requiring labeling of all foods and ingredients that derive from bioengineered crops.
Proponents of inclusive labeling
Proponents of inclusive labeling cite the consumer’s right to know, arguing that transparency can build trust. Representative of this view are comments from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“Consumers expect to know if a product contains an ingredient that was sourced from a bioengineered crop. … full disclosure of information to consumers will ... support ... our ability to engage in a dialogue with consumers about technologies that improve lives, society and the environment,” the G.M.A. said.
This formulation sounds good, but it has flaws in the real world. It ignores all of the health and environmental doubts about genetic modification repeated by its opponents. It ignores stiff European resistance to all forms of bioengineering, recently reinforced by a European Supreme Court decision that genetically-edited crops are genetically-modified organisms for purposes of their labeling laws. It ignores the fact that many G.M.A. members are regularly marketing products as “non-G.M.O.” and pressuring suppliers to source non-bioengineered ingredients, which actions can reinforce consumer concerns rather than rebut them.
This position also seems to follow the E.U. Supreme Court’s logic in equating transgenic modifications with bioengineering techniques that do not import foreign genes into a crop. Techniques like CrisprCas9 are more precise than gene transfers and more predictable than traditional crossbreeding or mutagenesis in terms of the changes induced in the crop. Treating gene editing like gene transfer seems to make it more rather than less difficult to educate consumers about the differences in these various approaches. It is far from clear that the “verification” option — inclusive labeling — actually leads to more dialogue about or greater trust in bioengineering.
Proponents of limited labeling
Those who favor limited labeling have science on their side, in two respects. Highly refined ingredients from bioengineered crops are chemically identical to ingredients from traditional crops. Moreover, scores of national science academies, the World Health Organization and many other groups have stated repeatedly that bioengineered foods are safe to eat. This view also has past food regulatory policy on its side, focusing differentiation on the nature of the product, not the process that brought it about (although this practice has been somewhat compromised in oversight of genetically-modified crops).
These views were summarized in comments arguing that the N.B.F.D.S. “is a marketing standard and not a health, safety or nutrition standard.” The problem with this view, however, is that bioengineering may have won the science competition and may even have won the marketing competition among farmers, but it is far from winning the marketing competition among consumers.
Consumers in the United States have eaten billions of pounds and meals containing genetically-engineered ingredients without apparent harm. Gene-editing techniques are more precise than earlier breeding and genetic-engineering techniques. Yet, doubts — nurtured by opponents and organic farmers, among others — remain. The Pew Research Center says about two in five Americans believe G.M. foods are worse for one’s health than traditional foods. One has to ask: is a strategy of “non-verification” — i.e., limited labeling — going to lead to public “trust?” Is something more required?
Time to decide
How the U.S.D.A. finally comes down on the scope of the N.B.F.D.S. will have far-reaching consequences for the entire food industry. Its current plan is to look toward a compliance date of Jan. 1, 2020, which aligns with the Food and Drug Administration’s nutrition labeling compliance goal. That does not leave a lot of time in which to find a solution that builds consumer trust and belief in bioengineering that the science behind it says it deserves.