Foods derived from crops improved through biotechnology have been subjected to more scrutiny than any other foods in human history. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded, “There is no significant difference between foods produced using bioengineering, as a class, and their conventional counterparts.”
The American Medical Association concluded, “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods.”
These are facts, but ones that escaped BDN columnist Dr. Michael Noonan in his April 18 piece, “Support labeling of genetically-modified foods in Maine.” Noonan’s column promotes LD 718, a bill that would force Maine food producers to bear the burden of an expensive and unnecessary labeling program.
Humans have been genetically modifying crops through selection and crossbreeding for thousands of years. Wheat has always had gluten, and varietal selection to improve yields has not changed that aspect of the crop. The varietal improvements of 50 years ago that Noonan describes in his column as genetic modification are not transgenic genetic modifications that LD 718 seeks to regulate. It is inaccuracies like this that make the topic so confusing for the general public, especially when we see that an obviously educated individual is confused about the issue.
Noonan’s column refers to his own experience with sleep apnea as evidence that genetically modified foods are “a real threat.” Many people have food allergies and need to learn how to manage them. That said, I am not aware of any clinical studies that prove that the genetically modified crops that LD 718 will regulate have caused any food allergies as a result of the modifications. This is after the products have been in widespread use in this country for close to 20 years and after Americans have consumed billions of portions.
And while Noonan advocates for labeling under LD 718 because of the health problems he ascribes to wheat, in reality this bill would have no impact whatsoever on these issues. Why? Because there is no transgenic wheat currently on the market. LD 718 would not add any further labeling requirements to the very product Noonan claims to be at the root of his health problems.
Genetic modification is a very broad term and describes all of the many ways that traits of a living organism can be changed. In plant agriculture these changes can include color, disease resistance, pest resistance, yield, plant shape or type, earliness of harvest, efficiency of water use, efficiency of nutrient use, eating quality and numerous other factors.
Genetically modified crops that LD 718 asks for labeling on are the modifications that are done by transgenic means. In simple terms, this involves identifying in the lab specific genes that provide a specific desired trait to a crop. Corn and soybeans are the two crops that we hear the most about that have been altered by these advanced scientific means. Other crops with transgenic genetic modification include canola, cotton, sugar beets, zucchini and summer squash, papaya, rice and alfalfa.
But not wheat. LD 718 would have no impact on the issues Noonan describes because there is currently no transgenic wheat available on the market.
Noonan refers to wheat breeding that took place in the 1940s and 1950s by Dr. Norman Borlaug on behalf of the government of Mexico. Noonan states that this “new breed of wheat was never tested for safety in humans.” This is not true. The composition of this wheat has been exhaustively evaluated and shown to be just as safe as older varieties. This breeding program aimed primarily at producing higher yields by introducing traits for plants of shorter stature, less likely to be blown over by windstorms. The resulting yield increases are widely credited with saving billions of lives around the world. In fact, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of this profound and invaluable gift to humanity.
I believe that all farmers should have the freedom to choose how they farm and what crops and varieties of those crops they use. I also believe that all consumers presently have the ability to purchase non-genetically modified foods by visiting their local health food store, the organic product section of many retail food stores or by talking with their neighbor farmer at the farm stand or farmers’ market.
Some members of society disagree with the concept of transgenic genetic modification, and I am glad that I live where they can express themselves about this and other issues. Without being too disagreeable about it, it does frustrate me that they want the rest of society to label and bear the resulting higher cost for food products that they do not like, or in the case of Noonan’s article, do not understand.
Lauchlin Titus has worked with Maine farmers for more than 40 years. He is an agronomist and owner of AgMatters LLC and past president of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association. He has served on a number of committees and task forces, including the Governor’s Task Force on the Sustainability of the Dairy Industry in Maine in 2003 and 2010. He has also chaired the Maine Nutrient Management Review Board since 1998.