Labeling Heroes


“We can’t all be heroes,” said Will Rogers. “Somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”

I’d be happy to sit on the curb and clap–but first a hero has to show up. After reading an article about the 2008 presidential candidates and biotech-food labels in last week’s Des Moines Register, I’m now worried that I may be in for a long wait.

The Register asked the leading candidates, as determined by their poll-tested popularity among Iowa voters, whether they would support a law requiring special labels for GM foods. Unfortunately, not a single one of them replied with the correct answer, which is to oppose labels because they’re completely unnecessary.

Three of the four top Democrats said that they’re in favor of labels: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson. The only one who didn’t say he was in favor was Barack Obama, who didn’t respond to the question.

On the Republican side, three out of four said that they had “no position” on the issue: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. Mike Huckabee didn’t reply.

It might be said that “no position” is better than outright support for labels, on the grounds that it leaves room for the possibility of opposition. That’s true, as far as it goes–but it isn’t far enough.

I’ll be sitting on the curb and holding my applause until one of these politicians steps forward and does the right thing.

Warning labels for biotech foods are a very bad idea for a simple reason: There’s nothing to warn against.

Many Americans still don’t realize it, but they eat GM food just about every day. They’ve been doing it for years. Currently, more than 90 percent of the soybeans and nearly 80 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, according to the Department of Agriculture.

By now, Americans have eaten trillions and trillions of meals that include GM components. There isn’t a single documented case of anybody so much as sneezing from them. They’re perfectly safe for human consumption.

Biotechnology is simply a means of production–a technique that allows farmers to grow more food on less land. (This trait has the remarkable quality of being both good for the environment and healthy for rural economics.) The food’s fundamental qualities are essentially no different from those that are produced with conventional seed.

We don’t label books based on whether their authors are right-handed or left-handed because we know it doesn’t affect the quality of their work. The same is true with crops. Their seeds may acquire traits through conventional breeding or biotech innovation–the end result is safe and nutritious food.

The problem with labels isn’t merely that they convey unnecessary information, but that they also raise needless suspicions. By and large, in the U.S., we label items when they pose a potential threat. If we start labeling GM food products, it may give people a reason to believe they have something to fear from researchers who use the latest innovations to help feed the world.

Last week, Ken Kamiya, a papaya farmer in Hawaii, visited Des Moines to attend the World Food Prize festivities. He explained how biotechnology saved papayas from a disease that nearly wiped out papaya farmers in his state. “Without biotechnology, there would be no papayas in Hawaii,” he said.

He would like to export his fruit to Japan, but he’s concerned that the government will slap labels on what he grows. “If you try to translate genetically modified food into Japanese, it comes out as ‘Godzilla’!”

Ridiculous misperceptions are exactly what anti-biotech activists want to foster. “Once this becomes the law of the land, [food companies] will reformulate their products,” said Anne Dietrich, the director of a group called the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods. “Iowa is the best place to start.”

Scare tactics are appropriate for ghosts and goblins on Halloween, not for politicians on Election Day. Biotech foods suffer from too many villains. They need a few heroes.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.

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