Time to feed people, not fears: the case against HB 1

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In 1988, Florida House Clerk John Phelps and Senate Secretary Joe Brown flipped a coin to determine which chamber would file odd numbered bills, and which even. The House got odds, and have since owned bill number one.  For 2014, HB 1 is claimed by Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda with a well-intentioned but misguided measure to require the retail labeling of all genetically modified foods. 

Nature has been genetically modifying food for millions of years, and humans for thousands.  The genetic “engineering” of foods is accomplished by natural selection, and by farmers who cut and graft.  Genetic modifications in or between plants can be triggered, isolated and bred, resulting in hundreds of thousands of genes being affected.

Yet when scientists in laboratories target 1-3 genes using heavily scrutinized methods and rigorous testing, people get worried, perhaps not without reason.

But rather than feed the fear factory and pass legislation to require all such foods be labeled — a costly regulatory nightmare — energy would be better spent educating the public about what genetically modified foods are, and aren’t.  

Some people worry that in the long run, these genetically different foods may cause harm.  Others are concerned with the ethics of the process, claiming that GMOs are “an infringement on a natural organism’s intrinsic value.”

If papaya could talk, it might disagree. 

After all, papayas wouldn’t be on shelves today were it not for genetic modifications that allow it to resist the ringspot virus.  Genetic engineering singularly spared papaya’s “intrinsic value” along with the livelihoods of those who grow the fruit.

Then there is the intrinsic value of human life. 

Over a billion people suffer from hunger worldwide, and even more are undernourished.  Genetic engineering allows foods to be grown faster; grown in environments that would normally be inhospitable; and grown more resistant to herbicides, disease and pests. These traits reduce overall pesticide use (good for the environment) and drive down the costs of food (making it easier to feed people.) 

Genetic modification also permits the boosting of nutritional value. For example, rice can be modified to contains higher amounts of vitamin A — the deficiency of which is estimated to kill nearly 700,000 young children each year, and can result in blindness and other problems.

These are feats of humanity accomplished by scientists such as Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, dubbed “the man who saved a billion lives” for a reason.  Of his detractors, Borlaug said, most have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger while lobbying from comfortable suites. His discoveries increased the worldwide food supply, notably in Africa, South Asia, and Central America.

All this aside, the debate may be too late.  As much as 80 percent of all packaged food contains GMOs: corn, canola, soybeans, vegetable oil, and sugar beets, to name a few.   This includes 90 percent of all corn grown in the US, and 93 percent of all soybeans.  (That’s a whole lot of labels to change for sale in Florida.)

Florida would be remiss to address unanswered questions through legislation … unless we are in a race to best California in the whacky labeling department.

(You know, California, where matchboxes require warnings that smoke contains carbon monoxide, and where fishhooks are labeled to be harmful if swallowed.)

Florida isn’t high on the list of states that produce genetically modified foods, but this may make a labeling requirement even more onerous to manufacturers and retailers, and costly to consumers. 

Personally, I would rather eat food that is genetically resistant to pests than food doused in pesticides. And for those who feel otherwise, want neither, and have the financial means to afford the pricier alternative — well, that’s what their local co-op is for.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy researcher, political consultant, and mother to three daughters. She can be reached at karen@cyphersgroup.com.