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GMO labeling advocates: Forget the science (for now)

There's been a mild swell of news recently playing up the scientific battle between conventional food and leading wings of the healthy food movement, constituencies like organic and non-GMO. But most of this is noise, off point, and not the true issue at hand.

The fabled Stanford study caught national attention here and here, among many other outlets, as credible evidence of the nutritional parity between foods grown organically and those grown through conventional practice.

Some leading voices in the organic world came forward quickly and decisively to defend the nutritional advantages of their fare, but I find myself scratching at my head and wondering: Whoever believed the organic message was about nutrition? This is a small, tiny arrow in the organic quiver, with a much heavier arsenal tied to land stewardship, animal stewardship and human health largely through the avoidance of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. It's about doing good by the earth—sustainably, I might add—and reducing chemical exposure. Not so much about nutrient density.

In fact, NBJ hit the parking lots of Boulder (click to watch!) for a quick survey of organic's resonance from within the core of natural channel shoppers, and boy did we get an earful on pesticides. Among all of organic's many virtuous and righteous attributes, consumer fear of escalating chemical load in the environment might be the strongest sticking point. It certainly seemed to be the one driving sales in our small, non-scientific sample.

GMO studies are premature

Then we move from Stanford on organic to France on tumorous rats. A study of note, appearing in the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicity, fed GE corn and glyphosate over a two year period to rat populations of limited size and watched the illness manifest. Some startling pictures of mammary tumors sent the message home, and the Yes on 37 campaign for the passage of Prop 37 in California for GE labeling pushed heavy on the scientific dangers of GE ingredients.

This is also off point and another miss, in my opinion. It's the wrong message for a watershed moment all about consumer choice and transparency in the food supply.

The study and its authors have seen hot debate over the past week, but don't we all intuitively know that this is premature? The science feels insufficient at this point—on both sides of the debate—to render judgment about the health concerns of GE ingredients. In fact, isn't that the point of labeling? Let's give consumers some choices as the science catches up to this new class of ingredients in our food supply.

As a father to two small girls, I'd even argue for a bigger dose of the precautionary principle here and hold off on the wonders of GE science until we know something more scientifically sound about its safety. This study from 2011 found Bt toxins in the cord blood of pregnant women and makes you wonder about this desire we Americans share to seemingly put the cart before the horse.

Prop 37 is not about the science

But here's my point: At this stage of discovery, your science and my science will continue to butt heads. The issue is choice, the choice to avoid certain contaminants in the food supply. That's it.

I'm all for science, but you don't need science to push choice. Label it—via the faulty mechanism of Prop 37, or some other initiative to come—and then watch to see if consumers move away from the products. When that happens, major CPGs will also begin to move away from GE ingredients, as they have across the globe already, and we'll begin to uncover all of the supply choke points necessary to source a higher load of "healthy" food.

Science will have played little part in that pivot, a pivot that could forever change the future of food in America.

Is GMO labeling a separate issue than biotech science? Or are the two intertwined? Share in the comments.

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