Public Release: 

ASPB urges opposition to mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon

Measure 27 will be on November Ballot

American Society of Plant Biologists

The American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), a nonprofit society of nearly 6,000 scientists opposes Measure 27, which will be on the Oregon state ballot next month. ASPB said Measure 27 calls for non-science-based government mandates in labeling genetically engineered food. ASPB noted that Measure 27 would produce more confusion than knowledge for consumers.

"The language in Measure 27 calls for labeling to be based on a system of beliefs of what is "natural," rather than a scientifically defined set of criteria focused on content and nutritional value," said ASPB President Daniel Bush, Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana. "This is a radical departure from food labeling up to now, which is designed to maximize useful information for consumers concerning what is in the food they are buying."

Bush said, "We have no quarrel with the premise behind this measure, that consumers deserve to know what they're eating. Labeling as provided in Measure 27, however, would not apply a scientifically sound and uniform standard that fully informs consumers of risks or even nutritional value. A mandated label based on process instead of content detracts from the usefulness of content-based labeling. There are, of course, examples of voluntary labeling standards in the food industry that reflect how foods are processed, such as organic foods. The voluntary organic labeling standards were sought by the organic food industry. Kosher foods are also labeled as having been produced in accordance with specific beliefs. However, mandatory labeling of targeted production methods has never before been required and we believe would obscure rather than clarify important issues of food safety."

Bush commented, "As plant scientists, we know that many of the technologies considered unnatural in Measure 27 are superior to traditional methods currently in use. Processes such as selection from crosses of wild relatives into commercial species can carry far greater inherent risks than the technologies targeted by Measure 27. For example, to counter Late Blight (responsible for the Irish potato famine) resistant wild relatives of potato can be crossed into commercial potatoes. However, these crosses carry the risk of transferring poisons known to occur in this family of plants (the deadly nightshade family). Indeed, crosses between related species has been a major source of new varieties in most commercially important plants. Yet, those crosses result in large scale exchange of genetic material that includes scores of genes and their expressed products.

"In contrast," Bush continued, "biotechnology allows one to introduce a specific gene that confers a desirable trait, such as disease resistance. Since only one gene is altered, the product of that gene can be tested for toxicity and allergenicity, and if found to be safe, the gene can be introduced with substantially less risk than what Measure 27 calls "natural" methods."

In addition to ASPB's concern that labeling foods based on process rather than content misleads the public, ASPB Committee on Public Affairs Chair Thomas Sharkey, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it is important to point out that foods which are products of plant biotechnology undergo far more extensive safety review than non-modified agricultural products.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires comprehensive safety tests on all genetically modified foods entering the marketplace. ASPB supports this testing and believes it ensures public safety. As scientists we find no reason to expect greater risk in the foods targeted by Measure 27, and based on the extensive testing mandated by the FDA, we expect these products to be safer than many items readily generated using "natural" methods," Sharkey said.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in its 2000 report 'Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation' found no distinction existing between the health and environmental risks posed by plants genetically engineered through modern molecular techniques and those modified by conventional breeding practices. The American Medical Association (AMA) has stated that there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods, as a class.

In an October 9, 2002 letter that ASPB sent to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, MD, Bush and Sharkey urged the Governor to work with the electorate of the state to oppose Measure 27 based on fundamental scientific principles. Bush and Sharkey cautioned that in addition to poor public policy, Measure 27 has the potential to do grave harm to the agricultural industry and markets of Oregon as companies weigh the cost of complying with labeling regulations from a single state.

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Headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, ASPB was founded in 1924 as the American Society of Plant Physiologists. The name was changed to the American Society of Plant Biologists last year to reflect the expanded diversity of plant science disciplines studied by its members. ASPB publishes two of the most widely cited plant science journals in the world: Plant Physiology and The Plant Cell.

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