The paternalistic assertion that labeling of genetically modified foods "can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers" is an Orwellian argument that violates the right of consumers to make informed decisions. Civilization rests on the confidence that an individual's basic human rights will be respected by the government, including the 'right to know.' The AAAS board failed to note that the FDA's testing program for GM foods is voluntary.

As a group of scientists and physicians that includes many long-standing members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), we challenge the recent AAAS Board of Directors statement opposing efforts to require labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants. Their position tramples the rights of consumers to make informed choices.

The statement argues: "These efforts are not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous. Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow 'unnatural' and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm."

This narrow focus on GMO safety ignores the broader life-cycle impacts of GMO crops. Many GM crops are engineered to be herbicide-resistant, which has led to the evolution of weeds resistant to widely used herbicides, including RoundUp and its active ingredient glyphosate. This, in turn, has led to increased herbicide use and to searches for alternatives. Thus, herbicide-resistant GMOs are committing us to a chemical treadmill.

Burgeoning growth of the organic food sector demonstrates that some consumers make choices based on sustainability, including potential health effects on farmworkers and the environment due to intense chemical use. Other cropping systems have reduced the need for chemical inputs, and many consumers want to support and expand the development of these farming practices by choosing not to buy food produced using GM technologies. Further, many people in the United States want food that approximates - in so far as possible - the food their forebears ate. Whole communities such as the Amish mandate this of their members. This powerful instinct will always exist among certain groups, regardless of scientific advances and safety analyses.

Editor's Note: The board of the world's largest general scientific organization created a firestorm by calling labeling of genetically modified foods unnecessary. A group of prominent scientists disagrees.Thus, the Board's paternalistic assertion that labeling of GM foods "can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers" is an Orwellian argument that violates the right of consumers to make informed decisions.

Importantly, despite their widespread use, the human and wildlife toxicity of herbicides has not been well studied. Evidence suggests that at least some may induce detrimental health effects even at low exposure levels. Importantly, recent molecular studies suggest that glyphosate-based herbicides can impair retinoic acid signaling, producing teratogenic effects. Thus, the finding of human effects consistent with impaired retinoic signaling in agricultural areas with heavy RoundUp use raises concern about the potential health effects of heavy herbicide usage. Although these studies do not prove that RoundUp/glyphosate creates unwarranted human risks, they raise significant concerns. Labeling GMO products would allow consumers to make choices based on these concerns.

The Board asserts that "Civilization rests on people's ability to modify plants to make them more suitable as food, feed and fiber plants and all of these modifications are genetic." However, civilization also rests on the confidence that an individual's basic human rights will be respected by his or her fellow citizens and by the government, including the 'right to know.'

The AAAS statement notes that "GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply." The statement should have included the fact that the Food and Drug Administration's testing program is voluntary. Our experience with other well-studied consumer products (tobacco, asbestos, bisphenol A, phthalates) demonstrates that a large number of tests provide no guarantee of safety. Typically, evidence of harm has only emerged when testing has been conducted independently of those who benefit from the product or practice. Unfortunately, years of manufactured doubt by those with a vested interest have and continue to slow public health decisions that rightfully should be based solely on science.

Additional authors include

Patricia Hunt, PhD
Washington State University

Bruce Blumberg, PhD
University of California, Irvine

Carl-Gustaf Bornehag, PhD
Karlstad University, Sweden

Richard Clapp, PhD
University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Terrence J. Collins, PhD
Carnegie Mellon University

Peter L. DeFur, PhD
Virginia Commonwealth University

Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT
Institute of Neurotoxicology & Neurological Disorders

Louis J. Guillette, Jr. PhD
Medical School of South Carolina

Tyrone B. Hayes, PhD
University of California, Berkeley

Steve Heilig, MPH
San Francisco Medical Society

Shuk-mei Ho, PhD
University of Cincinnati Medical Center

Richard Jackson, MD
Former Director, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC

Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
USC School of Medicine

Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH
Simon Fraser University

John Peterson Myers, PhD Environmental Health Sciences*

Gail S. Prins, PhD
University of Illinois at Chicago

Shanna Swan, PhD
Mt. Sinai School of Medicine

Bernard Weiss, PhD University of Rochester

Laura Vandenberg, PhD Tufts University

Frederick S. vom Saal, PhD
University of Missouri

R. Thomas Zoeller University of Massachusetts, Amherst