Commentary

AMA Is Of Two Opinions About GMOs

The American Medical Association sent a somewhat mixed message regarding genetically engineered foods at its annual convention this week. On the one hand, it said “there is no scientific basis for special labeling” of crops that are created in laboratories to, for example, increase yield per acre or resist pesticides that are lethal to weeds.” But it did pass a resolution that calls for mandatory pre-market safety assessments of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) –- which would be a new Food and Drug Administration requirement.

With an initiative to require labeling on the ballot in California this November ("The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act"), the AMA’s position probably nets out favorably for the food industry, which obviously opposes any such requirement. The food and biotech industries will “spend an estimated $60-100 million on an advertising blitz to convince Californians that labeling is unnecessary, will hurt farmers, increase their food prices, and even contribute to world hunger,” Richard Schiffman wrote in The Guardian last week.

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But the AMA believes that “the science-based labeling policies of the FDA do not support special product labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts,” board member Patrice Harris writes in an email to “Booster Shots” blogger Rosie Mestel in the Los Angeles Times. “The AMA adopted policy supporting this science-based approach, recognizing that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.”

“The 500-ish-word statement” has not yet been posted on the AMA’s website, as Mestel points out. But it also contends that “voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education,” she observes.

Polls seem to indicate overwhelming consumer support for labeling.

“This is one of the few issues in America today that enjoys broad bipartisan support: 89% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats want genetically altered foods to be labeled, as they already are in 40 nations in Europe, in Brazil, and even in China,” Schiffman writes. He also points out “the FDA's position on GMOs is that they are safe and essentially equivalent nutritionally to conventionally grown food varieties.”

Consumers Union was baffled by a seeming dichotomy in the AMA’s support of mandatory premarket safety assessment of genetically engineered (GE) foods but its refusal to endorse labeling. 

“If unexpected adverse health effects, such as an allergic reaction, happen as a result of GE, then labeling could perhaps be the only way to determine that the GE process was linked to the adverse health effect,” says senior scientist Michael Hansen. 

The leading GMO biotech firm, Monsanto, “would not say whether or not the company supports mandatory pre-market testing, only that the current voluntary consultation process ‘is working,’ as Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher wrote to the Chicago Tribune’s Monica Eng. “All of Monsanto’s biotech products, and to our knowledge all those of other companies, go through the FDA consultation process, which provides a stringent safety assessment of biotech crops before they are placed on the market.”

Meanwhile, “GMO Myths and Truths,” a critical review of the research on claims made for the safety of genetically modified foods, has been posted online and is available here. “Genetically modified (GM) crops are promoted on the basis of a range of far-reaching claims from the GM crop industry and its supporters,” write the academic authors, Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan. “However, a large and growing body of scientific and other authoritative evidence shows that these claims are not true.”

Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and a long-time advocate for GMO labeling, reviewed the 123-page paper on her blog, which was picked up byThe Atlantic.

“As I discuss in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the pro-GM and anti-GM advocates view the topic in quite different ways that I call for lack of better terms ‘science-based’ versus ‘value-based.’ In ‘GMO Myths and Truths,’ the authors attempt to cross this divide by taking a science-based, heavily referenced approach to dealing with claims for the benefits of GM foods.” 

Indeed, the authors cite a wide range of negative impacts ranging from familiar arguments (they “harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems and reduce biodiversity”) to the somewhat ideological (GMOs “cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes -- poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.”)

Let’s double back to the AMA, as we wrap up for the week. It may be slow to post its GMO statement on its website, but other policies adopted at the convention, including one warning about possible adverse effects the next time the boss asks you to burn the midnight oil on a marketing campaign, can be found here.

The AMA has adopted a policy “recognizing that exposure to excessive light at night can disrupt sleep, exacerbate sleep disorders and cause unsafe driving conditions,” according to the statement. “The policy also supports the need for developing lighting technologies that minimize circadian disruption and encourages further research on the risks and benefits of occupational and environmental exposure to light at night.”

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