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Time for truce on food labels

Is a truce in the long war over genetically modified food in the works? Not entirely.

But news reports that U.S. food producers and retailers may finally be willing to label such foods suggest the industry is preparing to take an important step forward.

Whole Foods Market Inc. has become the first major grocery chain to say it will require labeling of all foods on its shelves containing genetically modified organisms. The mandate will come into full effect in five years.

The pervasiveness of genetic modification is a well-kept secret. Ingredients in as much as 75 percent of packaged food have had their DNA altered to resist pests, tolerate excessive heat or grow with less water. For two decades, seed companies, agricultural product makers and food processors successfully rebuffed calls for labeling.

Last year, in a campaign filled with exaggerations and half-truths, food companies spent more than $40 million to defeat a California ballot initiative that required GM labeling.

The battle is far from over, however. After their loss in California, label advocates pressed ahead with similar drives in almost two dozen states. Amid boycott threats, negative publicity and the prospect of waging expensive campaigns across the country, food companies seem to be ready to concede the point.

The Food and Drug Administration could have spared everyone the trouble. Instead, the FDA concluded more than a decade ago that GM foods are indistinguishable from unaltered foods, and that labeling was therefore unnecessary. The policy is out of sync with those in other industrialized nations. Even China and Brazil have tighter requirements.

More information in the hands of consumers isn’t a bad thing. Polls consistently show a large percentage of Americans favors GM labeling. In 2007, candidate Barack Obama backed labeling, though he has failed to follow through.

While GM labeling is the right destination, some in the pro-labeling camp have made the journey unnecessarily difficult, in part by spewing alarmist epithets such as “frankenfood.” It’s not unusual to hear an assortment of ills ascribed to GM foods, from obesity and cancer to infertility and genetic defects. The claims, including an oft-cited, but flawed, French study of rats that developed tumors after consuming GM corn, aren’t supported by research.

Such attacks obscure the virtues of GM crops. Engineered to thrive in extreme weather, they can improve food security, staving off malnutrition and starvation amid changing climates, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Legitimate questions remain. Do crops designed to produce insecticide end up killing useful insects, such as honey bees? Do pests develop resistance to GM crops, requiring farmers to apply even more toxic chemicals to keep them in check? What happens when GM crops crossbreed with non-GM crops? These issues deserve thorough investigation.

Meanwhile, we support a truce. In exchange for proper GM labeling by food producers and retailers, opponents of GM food sources should observe a moratorium on scientifically dubious claims and other forms of scaremongering. This shouldn’t be too hard. In January, Mark Lynas, a British environmentalist and leader of the European opposition to GM foods, apologized for his role in whipping up hysteria and organizing vandalism raids on farms conducting trials of GM crops.

With GM labeling, consumers will be better-informed about their food. With a lid on opponents’ scare tactics, they will be better-informed about the science, as well.

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