Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods Should be a Fundamental Consumer Right

By Robert Thiel, Ph.D., Naturopath President, California State Naturopathic Medical Association


On October 18, 1999 Business Week reported that, "Almost 60% of all processed foods in the U.S.--and virtually all of the candy, syrup, salad dressing, and chocolate already contain GM {genetically modified} material" [1]. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that the new genetically modified strains of food do not need special labeling (thus many are unknowingly eating genetically modified foods). The FDA currently requires no labeling because it believes that genetically modified foods are not significantly different than hybrids developed by cross breeding [1].

Genetically modified foods are different, however, from hybrids. Whereas many hybrids are the results of crossing two or more varieties of the same species, genetically modified foods do not need to be. Actually, it is believed to be possible to insert the gene of an animal (or a different species of plant) into a plant in order to make a genetically modified plant, such cannot occur with normal hybrids: "Potatoes may be spliced with chicken genes, tomatoes spliced with fish genes, corn spliced with 'virus' genes, pigs spliced with human genes. Bacteria, insect, and animal combinations and various plant combinations produced. Manufacturers can sell bioengineered foods without [adequate] safety testing or disclosure. There is phenomenal potential for harm" [2].

Although it is true, as some proponents of genetic modifications claim, that some "natural genetic engineering" occurs [3], this is not the same as modern genetic modifying of foods. Natural changes are not done on a massive scale and faulty mutations would tend to die out (many cannot reproduce or even survive). Although some genetically modified plants cannot reproduce the precise same species, science is able to prolong their continued existence by producing more of them (as well as chemically supporting them) through unnatural means. This never could have happened with natural mutations. Although advocates of genetically modified foods claim that these foods are completely safe, how can they know? One of the unintended consequences of genetically modified corn is that the pollen from the plant has been found to kill monarch butterflies [4]. Natural corn pollen does not kill monarch butterflies--what else might genetic modifications cause?

One type of genetically modified potatoes (not believed to be on the market yet) has been found to lower immune responses in rats [5]. Should humans eat them? Opponents of genetically modified foods point out that genetically altering foods to be resistant to bacteria may hasten antibiotic resistance in humans [4] (also prolonged exposure to antibiotics increases the chances of developing mycotic [yeast] infections [6]). Sometimes foods are genetically modified to produce their own insecticides or herbicides [4]. If a genetically modified plant can kill other living organisms, should humans eat it? Some plants are modified so that only a specific herbicide is effective with them--this creates a captive market for farmers who buy those seeds (it is also one of the reasons that herbicide producers are involved in genetically modifying foods) [4].

The FDA approved the genetically modified "Flavr Savr" tomato on May 18, 1994 [7]. There are now at least 40 genetically modified crops [5]. In 1999, 37% of corn and 47% of soybeans grown in the U.S. were genetically modified [5]. Although the "Flavr Savr" tomato is considered to be the "first genetically altered food", gene altered bacteria were first tested for agricultural purposes in 1987 [7]. On November 5, 1993 the FDA approved "bovine somatrophin (BST), a genetically engineered synthetic hormone intended to increase the amount of milk produced by dairy cows" [7]. This is quite significant to the food supply as "Animal products supply 53% of all food consumed in the United States" [8].

Genetic engineering and cloning are touted as ways to improve production efficiency of farm animals [8]. The United States Department of Agriculture has backed the use of genetically engineered/modified agriculture as a means of increasing crop yields and reducing pesticides [4]. But by having plants genetically modified to contain their own insecticides, wouldn't humans be exposed to a new type of insecticide? "The objective of genetic improvement is to increase marketability of the fruit {or tree in the case of ornamentals} and to introduce traits that reduce production costs" [9]. Notice that the objective has nothing to do with improving nutrition (as this author confirmed by reading the rest of that paper), but mainly with profits.

It is feared that transgenetic crops may interbreed with nearby weeds and create "superweeds" which may be resistant to existing pesticides, thus resulting in increased use of stronger pesticides [10,11]. Currently there are at least "185 documented cases of unique herbicide-resistant weed bio-types that have been reported" [12] and genetic alterations may increase that number [10,11].

Others have raised concerns that genetically altered foods may pose genetic hazards for humans themselves [13]. Does any one wish to take that risk? Genetically modified foods may contribute to allergies, but thus far they seem no more likely to do this than conventional foods [14].

Genetically modified foods can sometimes be detected, but not always [4,15]. Essentially, it can be detected when DNA is present and not when DNA is not found [15]. Some have suggested that all approved genetically modified organisms should be tagged with some type of biological marker so to permit surveillance of these items in the food supply [16]. Of course, without required labeling, this will not help anyone.

Proponents of genetically modified foods believe they can be helpful for certain health problems, such as genetically modifying oatmeal to reduce cholesterol [4]. That however is also one of the reasons genetically modified foods should not be allowed. As Britain's Prince Charles commented, genetic modification of food, "takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone" [4]. Why? Because no one on earth can possibly know everything about food, nutrition, and human health.

A Few Examples

For example, let us assume that a genetically modified food does reduce cholesterol but has lower amounts of certain B vitamins (this example is only intended to be theoretical). Consumers with high cholesterol may chose that food instead of the organic version thinking they are helping themselves. However, some scientists believe (including this author) that high levels of homocysteine may play a greater role in causing vascular diseases than does high cholesterol [17]. If this is true, consuming the genetically-modified food may actually increase the risk of vascular disease that the consumer was trying to avoid because it may have inadvertently reduced the portions of the food that could have lowered homocysteine levels.

Genetic alterations of bovine mammary glands can change the properties of milk [18]. While the developers seem to feel that this can increase desirable properties of milk, what if it inadvertently reduces unknown factors, which are helpful for infants or children [18]? What if it results in a problem with calcium metabolism which leads to an increase of osteoporosis? Many errors in understanding nutrition have already occurred with dairy in the past (such as putting in a synthetic vitamin D which did not have adequate antirachetic properties [19] and causing health problems in infants when formula was recommended as superior to breast milk to mothers in certain third world countries [20]). Does the U.S. want to take more risks with dairy?

Vegetable oils comprise as much as 25% of average caloric intake, yet much of it is now genetically modified. Future modifications are planned to tailor their composition to some food scientists' views of what humans need [21]. Previous errors with vegetable oils have also occurred. Some feel that saturated fats raise cholesterol, yet stearic acid (a plant lipid) is a saturated fat which has been shown to decrease cholesterol [22]--thus reduction of saturated fat from certain lipids may not necessarily translate into the desired health benefit.

Additionally, the ingestion of trans fatty acids is estimated to kill at least 30,000 Americans each year [23]--please recall that these trans fatty acids (such as hydrogenated oils) were touted as having health benefits and having no health risks for decades (some have still failed to see the dangers associated with them) as they were claimed to be chemically identical to certain natural cis fatty acids. Thus, mainstream scientists have in the past erred by supporting the introduction on unnatural "foods" into the marketplace.

It is possible that some genetically modified foods will be beneficial. However, how can we be sure that the scientists that develop them can know everything about their possible consequences? Human beings have survived for thousands of years consuming only natural foods. Don't consumers have the right to know if foods containing genetically modified materials? Although banning certain of these foods should also be considered, labeling those 'foods' is more feasible, and should result in a dramatic reduction of genetically modified foods being in the food supply (and give developers of these "foods" a reason to do research into more natural ways of improving the food supply).

This type of labeling requirement exists in the European Union and appears to have reduced the amount of genetically modified foods being consumed there [1,4]. The United States, a worldwide leader in the production of genetically modified foods as well as a worldwide leader in consumer protection, should not be the last nation to protect its own residents.

Call to Action

To help accomplish this objective, the California State Naturopathic Medical Association (CSNMA) has contacted a several California legislators to introduce a bill requiring that all foods intended for human consumption within California containing genetically modified foods be so labeled. In February of 2000, Senator Tom Hayden (one of the senators offices CSNMA has been in contact with) introduced to bills regarding genetically modifed foods. The first, SB 1513 would require that all genetically modified foods carry a label with that information; the other SB 1514 is related to public schools and genetically modified foods. The CSNMA is on record with Senator Hayden's office supporting these bills. A ballet initiative for California is also in process (for information contact On the federal level, various national organizations are also working on this matter as well.

The ANMA recently adopted that following as its official position statement, "Whereas human beings have survived for thousands of years consuming only natural foods, it is the position of the American Naturopathic Medical Association that foods containing genetically modified materials need to be identified of the label so that consumers can choose whether or not to purchase them" [24].

On November 16, 1999, Representative Dennis Kucinich introduced a genetic 'right to know' act into the House of Representatives. If passed this bill will require that all genetically-modified material must bear this on the label: UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT NOTICE: THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS GENETICALLY ENGINEERED MATERIAL, OR WAS PRODUCED WITH GENETICALLY ENGINEERED MATERIALS [25]. To support this effort you may simply want to type a letter to your representatives and include a few comments as to why you feel labeling of genetically modified foods should be a fundamental consumer right (more information on this bill is also found at Please show your support of natural health and a more natural food supply. We not only can make a difference, we must make a difference.


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