Those who fight against genetically engineered crops are fast becoming a fringe group. Despite years of hard scientific facts, they persist. After failing for 16 years to prove that biotech foods are any different than nonbiotech foods, they got a ruling Nov. 6 from the perfect judge of chemical validity -- the California electorate. Fortunately, they lost.
California's Proposition 37 ballot initiative, dubbed "The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act," would have required manufacturers to label all food items that contain genetically engineered ingredients. On top of the already onerous general election cacophony, Californians were treated to a multimillion-dollar media battle with Hollywood stars, scientists and food-industry giants loudly vying for and against such labeling.
The debate was unpleasant, riddled with myths, half-truths, agenda-driven junk science and tumor-laden rats contributing to an overall hysteria. Picture torch-wielding villagers storming the "Frankenfood" castle.
Why should you care about biotech labeling? Mandatory labels imply a meaningful difference, but regulatory agencies and the scientific community have determined there is no material difference in nutritional composition and safety between biotech foods and their nonbiotech counterparts. Dozens of scientific organizations around the world say that genetic engineering is at least as safe and often safer than conventional breeding. More than 3,200 renowned scientists worldwide have signed a declaration in support of agricultural biotechnology and its safety to humans, animals and the environment.
Requiring a "Produced with Genetic Engineering" label would be like putting a skull and crossbones on the product. It would imply that there is something wrong. If imposed, it would in effect have been an economic sanction on the Corn Belt, of which Minnesota is a part, based on the California electorate's ignorance and fear. Thankfully, the voice of reason prevailed.
Since the first biotech crop hit the market in 1996, about 1 billion acres of U.S. farmland has been planted to biotech crops, and trillions of pounds of the resulting soybeans and corn have been consumed worldwide with no credible reports of harm to human health. The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the British Medical Association are just a few of the organizations that have come out in support of biotech foods.
Genetically engineered crops use less pesticide, are easier on our land, water and topsoil, and produce more food on less land with fewer carbon-based inputs. And there are more benefits to come. As the secrets of plant genomes are revealed, science will further refine and develop biotechnologies that in 20 to 40 years may defeat hunger and ensure a more peaceful, healthy planet.
Even Europe has changed its view. The "biotech deniers" argue that over 50 countries, mostly EU countries, have biotech-labeling laws. What they don't say is that those laws were passed 16 years ago and had more to do with economic protectionism than safety. Biotech grain has been fed to livestock in Europe for many years, and today Europeans are changing their opinion on biotechnology as the evidence mounts.
In fact, the European Union's Food Safety Authority supports the introduction of such technology and is working on a legal framework.
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Keith Schrader is a farmer in Nerstrand, Minn.