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(Excerpted with permission from Country Guide magazine.)


Thirty years ago, an orange cauliflower was found growing in a Canadian field. The strange color was due to a natural mutation which gave the plant beta-carotene concentration several hundred times higher than a normal white cauliflower. Beta-carotene is an important source of vitamin A, and its antioxidant properties may reduce the incidence of heart disease and some cancers.

After studying the orange cauliflower, USDA scientists concluded that mutation of a single gene triggered the programming error responsible for massive amounts of beta-carotene accumulating in a species that normally produces very little. They are now looking for ways to genetically engineer higher beta-carotene levels in more important crops, such as wheat and rice, that also have minimal amounts of this nutrient.

The original mutant cauliflower, since it developed spontaneously, is not considered genetically modified. If the responsible gene was successfully transferred to wheat or rice, however, they would be considered GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and, under a mandatory GMO labeling system, would have to be identified as such. Go figure.

But while it makes no scientific or economic sense, labeling of foods that contain GMO crops is a costly and unnecessary step whose time has nevertheless come. It will sort out a polarized conflict in which consumers are freely used as ammunition but seldom actually consulted. The market is the ultimate consumer consultation forum.

While the anti-GMO activists do their best to cloud the picture, the facts of this controversy are simple. "GMO" and "non-GMO" are artificial distinctions. Genetic modification of the kind used to produce, for example, herbicide-tolerant canola is simply an extension of what the human race has been doing ever since it began cultivating crops.

Selecting a single rust-resistant wheat plant from among fields of susceptible plants is a form of passive genetic modification. Bombarding seed with chemicals or radiation to induce useful mutations is an active form of genetic modification. So is direct gene transfer from one species to another; the main difference is that it is quicker, more predictable and more precise than earlier technology. The same results could eventually be achieved with traditional genetic modification.

That's the primary reason for describing GMO labeling as fundamentally irrational. Of course, its proponents will say their major concern is the issue of choice, that consumers have in principle a right to know what they're eating. That statement looks fine on the surface. Who, indeed, could really disagree? But let's take a deeper look at where the "choice" argument ultimately leads.

Some consumers would like assurance that salad vegetables and other foods they eat uncooked have never been near livestock manure. They'd prefer them to have been fertilized with nice clean bacteria-free ammonium phosphate, thank you very much. To say that people have eaten crops fertilized with manure for hundreds of years is irrelevant. The fecal coliform danger has only recently become known. So should we now have non-organic certification and labeling?

Some consumers prefer to buy goods and services produced in a union shop. Others, given a choice, go the non-union route every time. So should products be labeled as to the nature of their originating workforce? Or the workforces that produced each component that went into a finished item? That sounds ridiculous and it is ridiculous. But we're talking principle here, the right to choose and know what you're buying. And by definition, principle cannot be applied selectively.

These arguments, however, hold little water in the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the GMO issue. GMO-bashing has become too good a money-raiser for various activist groups to give up, and too easy a topic for journalists in search of a quick story. Since GMOs are highly unlikely to be linked to any real environmental or health hazard, these critics will eventually move on to new enthusiasms. Meantime, GMO labeling will let the marketplace deliver its verdict. And, as the marketplace usually does, it will probably separate real benefits from imaginary (or minimal) risks, and come down on the side of economic self-interest. AM


Dave Wreford is editor of Country Guide, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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