Vegetarian Times often lures me into buying an issue with their delicious cover recipes, like this amazing looking “Mediterranean pressed picnic sandwich”. The recipes are great, but I wish they would stick with what they know best. This month’s “carrot & stick” column contained the following:
“STICKS TO American Crystal Sugar Company, based in Moorhead, Minn., for sourcing sugar from genetically engineered sugar beets designed to withstand the herbicide Roundup. Since sugar beets account for half of the nation’s granulated sugar production, GE ingredients will soon be present in just about every nonorganic, multiple-ingredient product people buy, says the Organic Consumers Association, which has called on American Crystal to reconsider its decision. Products containing GE ingredients are not required to be labeled as such.”
I like food labels. I wish we had more, but if we are going to have one label, we’ve gotta have them all…I want to know every step in the growing process, from how much the workers are paid to what types of pesticides are used to how they rotate their crops each year. Information about the size and location of the grower would be nice too. On the small amounts of pre-prepared foods I buy, I’d especially like to see a “Vegetarian” or “Vegan” label so I don’t have to scour the ingredients list for random gelatin or guess if the rennet is GE or from a calf’s stomach lining. I’d like all of this information available for restaurant food as well.
Despite my pro-label inclinations, I know that it would be expensive and difficult to the point of impossibility to include all of this information on any food product. This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument for eating local – if you have questions, you can ask the farmer face-to-face. For food we don’t buy at a farmer’s market, each label goes through a sort of cost-benefit analysis. Some labels, such as “may contain peanuts” have a big benefit if it prevents someone from going into anaphylactic shock.
As for labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered crops, the cost is high while the benefit is low. A “GE” label means nothing because the genetic engineering process has been proven to be at least as safe as the more common (and organic approved) mutation breeding. In fact, some plants that have never been engineered or bred in any way can be more dangerous than their “unnatural” counterparts (see the amusing and informative How to Poison Your Spouse the Natural Way by retired biochemist and author Jay Mann for some examples).
To be useful, a GE label would have to list the trait (glyphosate resistant, drought resistant, bioavailable iron enhanced, etc) with the exact gene name and the exact event (because each event is a different insertion into the genome so may have different effects on the plant). This sort of label makes sense for specialty crops such as low-linoleic soybean oil (which was actually developed with traditional breeding methods, but could have much more easily been engineered). These specialty crops would necessarily be grown and processed separately from crops that do not have the special trait. For non-specialty items, however, food is aggregated for processing. One bottle of soybean oil may be derived from beans from many fields, so would all possible transgenes have to be listed on the bottle?
On glyphosate resistance in sugar beets specifically, we have to consider the environmental costs and benefits. The farmers need to control weeds in their fields. They could pull the weeds by hand, or use other non-chemical methods such as flaming or tilling. All of these require more labor, which increases cost. Flaming and tilling both release greenhouse gases. Pre-emergent herbicides are a common chemical option, but many of them are very toxic, like atrazine. Glyphosate is a relatively non-toxic alternative. Unfortunately, some formulations contain surfacants and other ingredients that aren’t so benign, but that’s a case for the pesticide formulators or the EPA, not for genetic engineers. Weed resistance to glyposate has happened, but at lower rates than some had expected. Most of these cases haven’t been due to spread of the transgene, but are natural resistance or a result of improper application of glyphosate. Resistance can be kept at bay by proper management techniques, as described in this extention article by the Glyphosate Stewardship Working Group.
My letter to the editor of Vegetarian Times that I seriously doubt will be published:
In the Jul/Aug issue, you gave sticks to American Crystal Sugar Company for deciding to use genetically engineered sugar beets, but didn’t provide a valid reason to decry their decision. While glyphosate use increases when resistant crops are used, the use of other herbicides decreases, and the use of soil-healthy carbon-sequestering no-till farming practices increases, all while allowing farmers to reduce costs. Glyphosate certainly has it’s own problems (such weed resistance and potentially toxic additives like surfactants) but it is far better than other herbicides. Glyphosate itself, the glyphosate resistance gene, and the genetic engineering process have all been proven to be safe again and again. Atrazine and other pesticides have been proven to be toxic. If we are to call for more labels and changes in agriculture, atrazine and similar pesticides should be at the top of the list.
Anastasia Bodnar
PhD student in genetics at Iowa State, working to develop maize with high levels of bioavailable iron and improved amino acid balance through genetic engineering and traditional breeding.


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