04/17/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Label Antibiotic Use, Not GMOs

I have a question: Where's the grassroots movement demanding labeling of antibiotic use in animals? Where are the petitions? Where are the Facebook memes? Where is the outrage that we don't know what we're putting in our bodies?

We have all of those things, and more, in the campaign for laws requiring that genetically modified organisms be labeled, despite the complete absence of evidence for any human harm. Although there has been some call for antibiotic use labeling in meat, the issue hasn't fired the public imagination to nearly the same extent, even though the case that antibiotic use in livestock poses a threat to human health, while not iron-clad, is much, much better.

According to the National Institutes of Health, "As a result of continued exposure to antimicrobials, the prevalence of resistant bacteria in the fecal flora of food animals can be relatively high. The impact of increases in resistant bacteria in food animals on the management of human infections is an ongoing concern..." Not a smoking gun, but a very real worry that's echoed by other responsible health authorities. Recent reports show just how prevalent these resistant bacteria are.

We have a food supply rife with problems for both people and planet, and there are entrenched, well-funded interests fighting any change. Public pressure is the best tool we have to fix what ails it, and we need to deploy that pressure carefully and strategically, where it can do the most good.

GM labeling shouldn't make the cut. People feel strongly about the issue, but the strength of feeling is not commensurate with the threat GM crops pose to us or our environment. Antibiotic use, though, is important for a couple of reasons. First is those nasty, drug-resistant bacteria. But antibiotic use is also an integral part of factory livestock farming, which abuses animals and pollutes water and land. On the list of food supply problems, factory livestock ranks high and is a fitting target for a grassroots campaign.

"Can't we have labels for both?" you might well ask. And, theoretically, we can. Practically, though, I think we've learned just how difficult it is to fight those entrenched, well-funded interests to get any change enacted. We need to focus on what's most important.

But there's another concern, besides just the opportunity cost, of spending the political capital of public pressure on GM food, an issue on which the activists are at odds with the scientists. It's the cry-wolf problem. Public outrage on an issue where there is no evidence for a threat makes it that much easier for the powers that be to ignore that outrage next time. We'll lose our credibility.

GM corn, however distasteful you may find it, won't hurt you. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria just might kill you. Which are you going to fight? I choose B.