GMO Labeling & Oregon

We Need to Label GMO Foods

The slightly less nerdy version:

My letter to Willamette Week.

If you’re interested in my original blog post, read on:

I’ve come to the conclusion I’d like to see labeling of GMO foods. How I got here is not by the arguments of the ballot measure supporters. It was actually the arguments of the opponents.

I’m not someone who opposes all genetic modification. First, it’s an important tool that has catapulted biomedical research forward. Insulin, growth hormones, hepatitis-B vaccines, and some cancer treatments are all produced by genetically modified organisms. The role of genetically modified organisms advancing science and therapies will only increase.

However, like any tool, whether it’s a chainsaw, staple gun, back hoes, even plungers — genetic modification’s benefits also come with some risk.

I spent some time studying the hyperbolic arguments used by both sides of Oregon’s Ballot Measure 92. I was annoyed and still undecided until I read something on the anti-labeling (noon92) website. It turns out that food processors selling in the EU and Japan have shifted ingredients away from GM after labeling.
Here’s some information on the two most common types of genetic modification used with corn, soy and cotton grown in the US:


I personally don’t think these risks are worth it. Thinking long-term, how are herbicide tolerant and insecticide producing plants really going to help future generations?

GM foods are here to stay. And they’re not all bad. But the majority of our corn, soy, and cotton are genetically modified in ways I disagree with. I figure that if GM is actually going to produce something better for consumers, for example, better nutrition, then GM will be a selling point.

So let’s label. Perhaps labeling will slow down the adoption of new and untested GMOs. Maybe labels will spark conversations about what makes sense for  the long-term health of humans and the planet.

Finally, to be clear, this is my personal view – I’m simply providing my thoughts on why I suggest everyone to vote YES on 92.

Monsanto is fighting this one with Big money.

I got inspired and sent a letter to the editor of the Willamette Week after they opposed labeling in their voter’s guide.

The ballot measure did not pass by a narrow margin.

Dear Willamette Week

I was very surprised that you missed the mark on Measure 92.  This is
extra upsetting because the measure was defeated by a small margin.

The opponents of labeling make enough true statements that they may seem
trustworthy on all accounts. For example, it’s true: GMO beet sugar is the
same biochemically as sugar from organic beets. Sucrose is sucrose.

I’m not anti-GMO. Without GMOs, we would not have many life-saving drugs,
and many (if not most?) of the exciting biochemical and cell biology
discoveries of the past 30 years.

However, while there’s not a huge amount of evidence that GMO products are
harmful (there are a few studies that indicate there could be some
endocrine disruptions, maybe some cancers, but it’s not well-studied), I’m
not convinced they are still 100% safe. And I am convinced that the most
common methods of GMO lead to more herbicides and pesticides being used
every year contaminating our water for future generations.

To help you think about GMO safety, please let me explain a bit about how
these crops work.

Glyphosate-resistant crops represent more than 80% of the transgenic crops
grown annually worldwide. So that’s where I’ll start.

Glyphosate works like this:  in regular corn, glyphosate is absorbed
through the leaves and is transported to the growing cells. There, the
glyphosate gums up the synthesis of three amino acids – building blocks
for new cells – which means that the developing corn cells stop growing
and die. In GM corn however, something different happens. The GM corn
disarms glyphosate.

Scientists created this disarming ability of GM crops (technically it’s an
enzyme) with a lot of work, starting with soil bacteria. They found soil
bacteria that was naturally resistant to glyphosate, isolated the gene
that provide this trait, and then tweaked the gene so that it’d both work
better and work in plants. They then inserted this new gene into corn.

The resulting GM corn product you then purchase contains 2 chemicals that
would not be present in ordinary corn:  inactivated glyphosate and a
protein that humans aren’t used to eating. So we have 2 things to double
check for safety (not to mention the soil and water that are contaminated
with the extra applications of herbicides). Inactivated glyphosate is
probably pretty safe. There are definitely worse chemicals out there. The
new protein is deemed safe because, before going to market, scientists
compare it against a database of existing known allergens.

Our over-reliance and continued use of glyphosate as the sole mechanism
for weed control has led to a whole bunch of glyphosate resistant weeds.
Farmers spray the fields and right next to the GM corn is a host of weeds
that should have died off. It’s a bio-chemical genetic arms race.

If one isn’t working, try two. Just last month, USDA started the process
to allow the use of plants that are 2x genetically modified:  not only are
they glyphosate resistant, these new plants will also have 2,4-D
resistance. So farmers will be spreading 2 herbicides (glyphosate and
2,4-D) rather than just one. 2,4-D (technically 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic
acid) is one of the ingredients in agent orange (but not the worst one,
which is dioxin). It’s also known as auxin, a plant hormone.

So soon, you’ll be eating a plant with now 4 new-to-corn chemicals: the
glyphosate resistance enzyme, the disarmed glyphosate, a 2,4-D resistance
enzyme, and the disarmed 2,4-D. Not to mention any of the residual
glyphosate and 2,4-D that may simply be still on the leaves, etc. As far
as safety, once again, scientists compared the new protein (an enzyme
called aryloxyalkanoate dioxygenase-12 (AAD-12)) against a database of
known allergens and it came up clean. Also, in a 2006 study to the USDA,
Dow AgroSciences looked at whether or not the AAD-12 protein is toxic by
giving it to 10 mice for 14 days after which the mice were killed and
examined. There was no evidence of toxicity. They concluded that if 10
mice don’t die after 14 days, it’s probably okay for thousands of humans
to eat every day of the year.

Anticipating the 2X GMOs won’t work, seed companies are already working on
soybeans that will carry resistance to 3 herbicides. So now they’ll be
able to apply 3 different herbicides in one fell swoop. Products on the
shelves will have 3 inactive herbicides and 3 new-to-the-world enzymes.

WWeek, are you still feeling safe? Don’t you want to know this is going on
before you eat something? What about the water quality issues? Wouldn’t
you agree that healthy water and healthy soils are needed for healthy
communities? Continuous application of synthetic pesticides kills useful
bugs, bacteria, worms, and other critters present in the soil.
And while glyphosate, auxin, etc. themselves aren’t as bad as individual
chemicals go, the surfactents that go along with them aren’t good for
water quality. Also, in biological systems, the negative effects of adding
a second and then a third chemical isn’t simply additive to the ecology;
there are synergistic unhealthy effects.

It seems to me that allowing things to go along as they are, with no
labels on GMOs, we are embracing GMOs and encouraging the seed companies
to continue this biochemical arms race. Without the label, we’re avoiding
the conversation.
My hope is that if GMOs were actually good for the environment, or
provided increased nutrition, that having the GMO label would be a selling

Measure 92 wasn’t perfect. And it did create an “us vs. them” attitude
toward GMO. The thing is, Measure 92 was the only tool we had to
demonstrate to the world that Oregon is working to stop this quickly
escalating reliance on a system of poorly tested GMOs and application of


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