Yes, let’s label all genetically modified foods (“Battle over GMO food labels in its final stages,” Jan. 24). Let’s begin with common wheat. The crop in those “amber waves of grain,” Triticum aestivum, is a genetic hybrid that combined the chromosomes from three different wild species. That happened thousands of years ago.

But it resulted from human intervention. So, all of the flour — including the classic brands that made Minnesota great — will need to be labeled as genetically modified. Along with all of the bread, buns, crackers, breakfast cereals and so forth made from wheat flour.

Next, we will have to label all of the corn — because Zea mays is a far cry genetically from its progenitor, teosinte, domesticated from the wilds of Mexico. Modern corn, too, evolved under human action. So label all of the corn meal, corn cereals and corn tortilla chips. And what about all of the foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, found on nearly every shelf of the grocery? Those will need to be labeled, too.

From these notable cases, we will have to proceed to most every domesticated crop — their heritable traits changed by humans from their original form in nature. Including nuts and berries. Let’s not forget animals, either.

Domestication changed beef and dairy cows from wild cattle (aurochs), pigs from wild boar and chickens from jungle fowl. Genetic modification, it seems, is a normal part of what we eat and has been for millennia.

Should we not also label household dogs and cats, all descended from — and genetically modified from — their wild Canis and Felis ancestors? They are unnatural. Label them.

On the other hand, perhaps genetic modification, by itself, is not a concrete risk?

The image seems frightening initially, because the very words invite us to think that we are tampering illegitimately with some preordained nature. But what matters are the particular effects. Advocates for labeling GM foods never seem to get beyond the raw image of “modification” to the underlying biology. Our public policies should be informed by clear science, not emotions shaped by vague impressions.

Genetic modification itself is irrelevant and warrants no labels. We have been modifying species genetically for thousands of years. Ironically, perhaps, the modern technologies are much more precise and narrow in effecting the changes we want. We are inserting one or two genes among tens of thousands. They produce very specific, known proteins or enzymes, with targeted functions. They do not change wholesale the integrity or imagined “purity” of the species. They do not upset the nutritional makeup of the crops. These erroneous images reflect scientific misunderstanding of the process of modification.

Concern about our food and how it is produced is certainly warranted. For example, the use of herbicides and other pesticides can damage the environment. Few people are aware that many GM crops help drastically reduce the use of such chemicals. As world population grows, agricultural productivity also matters. That has guided development of other GM crops that increase yields. Such facts need to inform our thinking. We need to consider each particular genetic modification in context and not make broad, unwarranted generalizations. Efforts to indiscriminately label all GM foods are thus misinformed.

 

Douglas Allchin, of St. Paul, is a philosopher of science and former biology teacher who writes the “Sacred Bovines” column for American Biology Teacher.