In light of the recent news about labeling products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I’d like to share a perspective that’s often overlooked. The GMO labeling issue is often portrayed as one of consumer activists vs. agricultural scientists. The two sides dismiss the other as either consisting of uniformed reactionists or being in the pocket of big agriculture.

I’m one of the very few credentialed scientists in the political arena, and I support GMO labeling for different reasons than the ones most often cited by those in the pro-labeling camp.

First, I will cede to the point of the anti-labeling side that there is most likely no major difference in the health and safety of the two different products. What hasn’t been a major part of the discussion are the health and environmental consequences of raising animals and crops that have been fed or altered with GMOs.

The first labeling controversy we had in Minnesota was about milk from cows that were fed bovine growth hormone (rBST), which increases milk production by 10 percent to 15 percent. Even when it is clear that there is no significant difference in milk safety, there are still serious problems found with the health of the cows. Those effects, including udder infections and lameness, require a greater use of antibiotics, which contribute to the growth of antibiotic resistant microbes. Even if one believes that dairy inspections are sufficiently rigorous to keep antibiotic traces out of the final product for people, this itself is a serious negative.

Consumers in Minnesota showed their preference for the non-GMO milk at the marketplace. Even when the labels made it clear that there was no significant consumer health concerns between the two milks, they still chose the non-GMO product.

Now let’s look at Roundup Ready corn and soybeans, which make up more than 70 percent of the Midwest crop. Interestingly, both rBST and Roundup Ready crops are produced by Monsanto.

During the approval phase for Roundup, Monsanto claimed that it was highly unlikely that weeds would become resistant, despite internal evidence to the contrary. The development of Roundup-resistant crops started with the isolation of a gene from the wild that had clearly evolved after extensive exposure to Roundup. As predicted by knowledgeable scientists, the resistance was easily transferred from crop to weed plants, thus requiring greater use of Roundup and additional herbicides. This has led to the development of extra-resistant crops that require a mix of several herbicides to keep Roundup-resistant “superweeds” at bay. It does not take a lot of imagination to follow this fatal spiral.

So those of us who want labeling as a way to help us avoid an environmentally detrimental cultivation technique have perfectly correct scientific reasons.

There must be some reason for the 64 countries with mandatory GMO labeling other than just following a hysterical anti-scientific consumer outcry.

It is interesting to note that most of the political rhetoric in favor of the use of GMOs is heavily supported by large agricultural conglomerates and the scientists financially supported by them. To best understand the inability of these agricultural companies to see the evolution of these “superweeds,” as Mother Jones magazine recently noted, we need only turn to the words of one of the first exposers of the evils of the mega foods industry, Upton Sinclair, who wrote: “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding.”


Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House.