What Are Genetically Modified Organisms?
No corporate activity today is more controversial than the production and sale of genetically modified organisms (GMOs; another common abbreviation is GM for genetically modified foods). One company in particular, Monsanto, has become so closely associated with GMOs that it has become the target of worldwide criticism and a number of public protests.
Though news articles and editorials appear daily about public interest campaigns against GMOs, many consumers still are not sure exactly what GMOs are or why they are so controversial. As you walk down the aisle of your local supermarket, you may have noticed package labels that state, “This product does not contain GMOs.” Should you buy such products? Should you prefer them to other products that do not make the same claim?
A GMO is any organism whose genes have been modified unnaturally.1 “Unnatural” gene modification involves isolating a gene from one species and splicing it into another. For example, this could involve isolating a mildew-resistant gene from one plant and splicing it into a different species of plant in order to create a product that stays fresh longer.2 In one sense, genetic manipulation is quite ancient. Ever since the origins of agriculture thousands of years ago, farmers have known how to improve crop quality by selectively breeding strains of vegetables, fruit, or grain. However, such hybrids are not GMOs because the process of creating them does not involve the transfer of genes from one species to another.
The term GMO refers not only to food products, but also to animals, insects, and medications that have been produced through genetic modification. The first medicine produced through genetic engineering was insulin. Previously, insulin for diabetes patients had been harvested from animals.3 Introduction of GMO-derived insulin reduced dependence on animals for the creation of this drug, and also reduced the number of negative allergic reactions among diabetes patients who were sensitive to animal-derived insulin. Genetic engineering has been used to develop medicines and treatments for a number of diseases, including cancer. This ability to engineer the genetic make-up of an organism has been referred to as conscious evolution.4
Genetically modified crops can be designed to provide benefits for producers or consumers. To date, the primary focus has been on improved farming productivity. Most GMO crops available today were created to be resistant to specific pests, pesticides, diseases, or difficult environmental conditions such as flood or drought.5 For example, one of the most commercially successful genetic modifications for crops is one that makes them resistant to glyphosate, an especially effective herbicide developed by Monsanto and sold under the trademark Roundup, but which is now produced by many other companies.6 Monsanto has developed seeds for GM crops that are resistant to glyphosate and are therefore marketed as “Roundup Ready.” By using GM crops that are resistant to glyphosate, farmers can control weeds more easily. This allows farmers to increase harvests while using less labor, because there is less need to plow fields once they have been cleared of weeds with glyphosate. Clearing weeds also reduces the presence of insect predators that could diminish crop yields.
One commonly cited example of the potential benefits of GMOs comes from the extensive reliance on GM crops in China, which has allowed China to greatly improve farm productivity.7 Cotton plants genetically modified to be resistant to local pests are already widely-used in China. By switching to this cotton, use of pesticides has decreased by 80%.
Genetically modified organisms play a larger role in our world than most Americans realize. In the United States today, over 90% of soybean, cotton, corn, and other crops are genetically modified.8 If you were not aware of the extent of GMO usage, you are not alone. A 2005 survey asked Canadians, Americans, and Britons if they were paying close attention to genetic engineering in their medication and food: Only 9% of Americans reported that they paid close attention to the issue and 31% were somewhat interested, but 25% answered that they had not paid any attention to the issue, and an additional 35% had paid little attention.9
Arguably, one of the reasons the public does not know more about genetically modified organisms is that research in the field is primarily conducted by the main companies who develop GMOs, and these companies do not wish to alarm the public.10 Large corporations have dominated the world of genetic engineering since the Supreme Court ruled that genes could be patented.11 Patent protection and enforcement by large corporations make it difficult for smaller companies or research firms to enter the genetic modification market. As a result, it is difficult for independent researchers to study patented genes without approval from the companies that own them.12
In the view of GMO skeptics, available research on GM food is usually biased in favor of GMOs.13 It has been alleged that independent researchers who threaten the interests of the large corporations risk losing research funding.14 The relative lack of independent research makes it more difficult for the general public to arrive at an informed, objective opinion. Many of the articles, websites, and other publications on this topic are biased: They either are produced by corporations that have developed GM foods, or they are published by lobby groups who are strongly opposed to GM foods.
GMOs and Biodiversity
The impact of GMOs on biodiversity is widely debated. Pro-GMO researchers maintain that if crops are genetically modified for pest resistance, farmers can reduce their reliance on insecticides, so that local fauna, such as birds, rodents, and insects, can flourish in the area. Secondary pests that would have been eliminated through widespread insecticide application are not suppressed by the scaled-back insecticide use permitted by GMOs. Because these secondary pests remain, other small predators—the birds and rodents that feed on the secondary pests—remain viable.15 In addition, the development of drought-resistant or flood-resistant crops allows arid or flood-prone land to be used for growing crops. This means that less high-biodiversity terrain needs to be converted for farming.16
On the other side of the debate, GMO skeptics have argued that up to 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since farmers switched to uniform GM crop varieties. In this view, less popular, non-GM seed varieties are being neglected.17 Moreover, widely used GM crop varieties can spread to neighboring fields and eventually mix in with non-GM crops. A farmer who wishes to continue using a non-GM seed variety, or who desires to maintain the organic status of his crops, must adopt potentially expensive measures to protect his crops from contamination or cross-pollination with his neighbor’s GM crops. It has also been argued that the over-popularity of certain GM crops may lead to greater susceptibility to pests and disease.18 Pests may evolve to target the monoculture of popular and overused crop varieties. Moreover, it has been argued that the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds has required farmers to make ever-greater use of glyphosate, the toxicity of which poses dangers for human health.
It has been hypothesized that GM crops can harm insect species that are not pests. Insects that feed on GM crops will carry GM pollen, which may prove toxic in the long term and result in depletion or even extinction of insect populations.19 The genetic integrity of any plant or insect that lives in close proximity to GM crops can be compromised because gene transfer from one organism to another can occur, and such genes may pose unanticipated risks. GM traits have been found transferred to insects, water life, and soil.
GMOs and Food Supply
It is frequently argued that GM crops are helping farmers solve the world’s hunger problems. Conceivably, GM crops help improve food sustainability, enhance environmental farming methods, and produce more nutritious food. Thus, it is generally accepted that GM crops can yield greater amounts of food (though not in all cases). Since GM crops can be designed to grow at a uniform speed and size, harvesting is simplified and yield is increased.20 GM crops are commonly engineered to require fewer pesticides and to be planted with no-till methods, thereby decreasing erosion, fuel consumption, and herbicide use. Moreover, GM crops can yield more nutrients. For example, the widely cited example of the GM crop known as Golden Rice illustrates the use of GM techniques to develop food staples with higher-than-usual nutrient levels. Proponents contend that, in the long term, Golden Rice and similarly nutrient-enhanced GM crops can help reduce malnutrition in developing countries. Supporters of GM crops argue that over-regulation of the GMO industry limits the realization of potential benefits from GM food. As a result, consumers in developing countries are deprived of potential public health benefits.
On the other side of the discussion, advocates for organic farming methods argue that sophisticated organic farming can actually produce higher crop yields than GM crops. Proponents of this view argue that world food problems are more often caused by poor distribution rather than a lack of available food. Improving the availability of food through the increased yields of GM crops cannot solve distribution problems. Anti-GMO groups also maintain that GM crops make farmers reliant on corporations that supply seeds and chemicals, thereby perpetuating poverty by yoking farmers into a cycle of dependence.21
The Case for GMOs and against Labeling
Given the above-described debates over the impact of GMOs on food supply and biodiversity, it is clear that there is strong support for GMOs as well as a determined lobby against them. While it currently seems unlikely that any major food-producing nations will outlaw GMOs, a vigorous debate is taking place on the mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. Opponents of mandatory labeling contend that GM foods are safe and do not require labels, while proponents maintain that consumers have a right to know what is in their food.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an organization that promotes scientific integrity and publishes the journal Science, has stated that attacks against GMOs and the fight to have them labeled can cause unnecessary alarm among consumers. The AAAS considers fears about GMO safety unfounded.22 The AAAS has pointed out that other types of natural breeding are universally encouraged and that genetic modification is fundamentally no different and no more harmful than these natural methods.23 The AAAS argues that since GM foods and non-GM foods are nutritionally equivalent, labeling of GM foods could lead consumers to erroneously believe that GM foods are harmful.
Other opponents of mandatory labeling argue that genetic modification of food is not different from the widely accepted practice of adding fluoride to our water, which does not require labeling under American law.24 Since labeling would discourage the use of GM ingredients in food products, we would essentially be preventing better food products from reaching consumers. For example, genetic modifications can eliminate fungal infections in foods that might otherwise cause sickness or lead to expensive food recalls.25 Greater regulation of GM foods could generate unfounded suspicion of good food products, and this suspicion could hinder further GM development and research.26
Unnecessary regulation of GM crops could also cause hardship to farmers. It has been claimed that some farmers have lost income because they cultivated GM crops that had been approved but were subsequently rejected for use as a result of lawsuits or revocation of USDA approval.27 Likewise, developers of GM crops have faced difficulty in trying to research and develop new seed varieties because regulations limit their ability to plant test crops outdoors.
The Case against GMOs and for Labeling
The anti-GMO lobby has called for labeling of all GMO food products so that consumers can make informed choices about whether to avoid the potential harm from GMOs. One widely publicized and highly controversial study published in 2012 examined laboratory rats that had consumed Roundup Ready corn—including both corn that was Roundup Ready but had not been sprayed with Roundup, and corn that was Roundup Ready and had been sprayed with Roundup. The researchers observed death rates two to three times higher among the Roundup Ready–fed rats than in the control group, in addition to major kidney impairments.28 This research was notable because most research conducted by corporations that develop GM foods is based on a ninety-day observation period. However, the study by Séralini et al. tracked the research animals for a period of two years, allowing for observation of long-term effects. The authors of this study pointed out that no regulatory body requires GM foods to be tested for consumption on animals before being sold to humans. Many GMO detractors seized upon this study as evidence that GM food is potentially dangerous. Since its publication, however, the study has been challenged by other scientists and was formally retracted by the publishers of the scientific journal in which it appeared.29
Another study examined pregnant mothers who ate GM corn, which had been modified with a pesticide-resistant gene that has been shown to cause tissue and autoimmune damage in mice.30 The study revealed that 93% of pregnant mothers tested positive for a toxin from the pesticide-resistant gene in their blood. The toxin also showed up in 80% of the umbilical blood of their babies. In addition, the authors of this study mention that farm laborers who work with this type of GM crop report serious allergies, and that animals grazing on these GM crops have higher death rates.
As mentioned above, independent research on GM food is difficult to conduct and is therefore scarce. However, there are a small number of studies that do suggest that GM food can cause impaired liver and kidney function as well as impaired embryo development. In addition, it has been conjectured that GM foods cause antibiotic resistance, and that they provide less nutrition because they may have lower levels of naturally occurring nutrients or hormones.31 Additionally, GM foods are alleged to pose higher risks for allergy sufferers. Clear labeling would allow individuals who may be especially susceptible to the harms of GMOs to avoid GMO foods.
Many anti-GMO groups argue that not enough research has been done to know if GM crops are safe for human consumption.32 Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have warned consumers that there is no solid evidence that GM food is safe for consumption.
At present, the only way a consumer can be confident that he or she is not purchasing GM food is by buying food with an “organic” label: The USDA only permits this label to be used on food products that are GM free.33 As an alternative, some companies voluntarily label their food as GM free to indicate that it has no traces of GM ingredients. This label is not regulated, however, and no inspection is conducted to ensure that all foods with this label are in fact free of GM ingredients.
According to a 2011 study of over one million Americans by the Mellman Group, 93% of poll respondents said they would like food with genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such.34 Approximately 75% of poll respondents were worried about the health effects of GM food, and 37% of respondents feared increased risks for cancer or allergies from these foods. Among those concerned about GM food, 26% thought these foods were not safe to eat and 13% worried about environmental problems caused by GM crops and foods. Forty percent of respondents thought that the fruits and vegetables they purchased were likely genetically modified; half of respondents said they would not eat modified veggies, fruits, and grains. Two-thirds of people surveyed claimed that they would not eat genetically modified meat.35
Labeling is admittedly difficult to introduce, due to both the cost and the complexity of food production. Many food companies today may be unaware of the extent to which their products contain GM ingredients. Consequently, in order to be effective, labeling must start at the very root of the food chain, when a GM seed is planted and grown into a GM crop.
GMO Labeling Around the Globe
While GM foods are freely grown in the United States, other regions, most notably the European Union, enforce strict regulations on GM crops.36 The European Food Safety Authority examines three aspects of GM food: genetic composition of the food, risk, and environmental impact. The European Union requires labeling because it believes that consumers should be able to make informed choices.37 Labeling of all GM food is mandatory in the European Union and in over 60 countries around the world, including China, Japan, and Australia.38 In other countries, such as Canada, labeling remains voluntary.39
Australia has imposed a strict regulatory framework for dealing with GMOs. Notice must be given of all applications for licensing of new GMOs. Following this, invitations to comment on these applications are widely published and feedback is invited from individuals, nonprofit organizations, researchers, and experts in the field. A separate regulatory body, staffed with experts in the field of GMO research, has helped ensure the success of this program by maintaining high standards for reporting and debate. Unfortunately, Australia’s regulatory system has not worked as smoothly as expected. Lobbying by strong interest groups continues to delay the release of some approved GMO products. However, proof of the regulatory system’s effectiveness has been shown through changed public opinion toward GMOs in Australia. As public education has increased and transparency about GM products has improved through this regulatory process, attitudes toward GMOs have become more positive.40
The Philippines contemplated introduction of mandatory labeling over the last decade and decided against it. A study of Filipino food production and the retail system concluded that labeling for GMO foods would result in cost increases of up to 12% for manufacturers. If any of this increase were passed along to consumers, in a country where 54% of the average household budget is already allocated for food, consumers would be less likely to buy the labeled GMO products.41
Approaches to Labeling in the United States
A number of reasons have been advanced for strengthening regulation of GMOs in the United States, most notably that American farmers have suffered from the misuse of GM food products. In 2008, the United States was responsible for about 50% of GM crops planted globally, including 80% of GM corn, 92% of GM soybeans, and 93% of GM canola. It has been reported that over 70% of processed food sold in the United States contains GMOs.42 In the past, accidental release of unapproved GE crops into the market has led to trade embargos by other countries that enforce more stringent control of GM products, resulting in losses for American farmers.43
Several states have begun independently looking at mandatory labeling for GM foods within the state. Connecticut, Hawaii, and Maine passed bills in 2013 to require various levels of labeling for GM foods. Hawaii’s legislation is the most detailed, requiring labels on GM foods imported from outside the state of Hawaii, as well as labels related to the sale of GM fish products. In 2013, New Hampshire’s House of Representatives proposed a GM labeling system, which was approved for further study by the State Senate in January 2014.44
As of October 2013, bills for various degrees of mandatory labeling had been proposed and were awaiting a vote in Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia. Bills for mandatory labeling had been proposed and voted down in Colorado and New Mexico. A bill for mandatory labeling was introduced in Florida but died in committee, and a bill for labeling was introduced in Maryland but was subsequently withdrawn as a result of an unsupportive report from the state’s Health and Government Operations committee.45
One of the most publicized campaigns for labeling was California’s Proposition 37. Proposition 37 required labeling of all GM food, and it forbade food producers from using the word “natural” on any food containing GM ingredients. Ultimately, it was defeated 53% to 47% in the 2012 elections. Had it passed, California would have been the first state to adopt anti-GMO legislation. The California Right to Know campaign raised major support, but a strong “No on Prop 37” campaign was also mounted with massive funding from corporations such as Monsanto and Hershey’s.46 While this bill was ultimately unsuccessful, noted author and food activist Michael Pollan has pointed out that Proposition 37 started a national conversation about food and food safety, gave the public an opportunity to vote about their confidence in the food industry, and made the public increasingly aware of lack of transparency within the food industry.47
Topic for Debate: To Label or Not to Label?
For this debate, you are the assigned to the role of owner of Just Food, a large (fictional) supermarket chain in the southwestern United States. A bill has just been tabled in your state’s House of Representatives to require mandatory labeling of all food products containing GMOs. Your major competitor, organic-loving Soul Foods, has come out publicly in support of this bill. Various lobby groups for both sides of the debate have approached you for support, and you must now decide whether you and your supermarket chain will take a public stand on the issue of GMO labeling.
The CEO of Just Food, Emily Progresso, is very mindful of the potential public relations benefits of coming out in favor of mandatory GMO labeling. On the other hand, Ms. Progresso has a degree in agricultural science and she is a very sincere person who does not want to take a position just for the sake of expediency; she would prefer to think she is doing the right thing. She asks two of her executives to prepare briefs for an internal debate about the topic.
Just Food should publicly support mandatory labeling of all products that contain GMOs.
- GMOs are not adequately researched and may be harmful for human consumption.
- Consumers have a right to know what they are purchasing for consumption.
- GMOs reduce plant biodiversity.
- Taking a stance against labeling will risk a consumer boycott or shift of consumer preferences to our competitor, Soul Foods.
Just Food should not publicly support mandatory labeling of all products that contain GMOs.
- GM foods are as nutritious as, or even more nutritious than, conventional foods.
- GMO use reduces a number of environmental problems.
- Genetic modification occurs naturally.
- Unnecessary labeling creates consumer fear and suspicion.
4.1 Food Safety Fact Sheet: Genetically Engineered Food: The Labeling Debate
Center for Food Safety. “Genetically Engineered Food: The Labeling Debate.” Food Safety Fact Sheet. April 2013. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/fact-sheets/1370/genetically-engineered-food-the-labeling-debate#.
If you want to know if your food was irradiated or contains gluten, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, transfats or MSG, you simply read the label. But if you want to know if your food was genetic engineered, you’re not going to find any information on the package.
Why? Because despite the fact that 64 countries around the world (including all European Union member states, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia, and China) grant their citizens the right to know what is in their food, the United States continues to ignore consumer demands to label GE foods. Numerous polls have indicated that more than 90 percent of US consumers believe GE foods should be labeled, yet the US has refused to grant its citizens this basic right.
Unlabeled, Untested, and You’re Eating It
Consumers across the country are being allowed to purchase and consume unlabeled GE foods, without our knowledge or consent. Already, this novel technology has invaded our grocery stores and our kitchens by fundamentally altering some of our most important staple food crops. Currently, more than 88 percent of US corn is genetically engineered, as are 93 percent of soybeans and 94 percent of cotton(cottonseed oil is often used in food products). According to industry estimates, up to 95 percent of sugar beets may now be GE varieties. It has been estimated that upwards of 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves—from soda to soup, crackers to condiments—contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association have all called for mandatory safety testing of GE foods. Nonetheless, FDA does no independent testing of their safety, even though documents uncovered in CFS litigation show that scientists within FDA indicated that GE foods could pose serious risks…
The State of GE Food Labeling
…Just over twenty years ago, FDA decided that GE foods need not be labeled because they were not “materially” different from other foods.
The biotech industry has also fiercely opposed GE labeling, and has convinced many in Congress and FDA that such a label would “mislead” consumers into thinking the food is dangerous. But we don’t label dangerous foods; we take them off the market. The government mandates food labeling not based on safety, but upon “material” change that consumers should be informed about. In fact, the agency already requires labels for over 3,000 ingredients, additives, and processes in food production, for all kinds of reasons, none of which are because the food has been deemed dangerous…
State and Federal Labeling Initiatives
As concerned citizens across the country grow tired of waiting for the federal government to take action, they are turning to state and local governments. In 2013 alone, over half the states in the country introduced bills that would require labeling for GE foods.Many of these bills use language that CFS crafted, or are based on CFS’s model GE labeling bill. On the heels of the narrow defeat of California’s landmark Proposition 37, states from Washington to Vermont are debating state legislation and citizen driven ballot initiatives to do what the federal government won’t: label GE food…
Interested parties seeking counsel on getting an initiative started in your city or state should contact CFS at email@example.com.
Center for Food Safety. “Genetically Engineered Food: The Labeling Debate.” Food Safety Fact Sheet. April 2013. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/fact-sheets/1370/genetically-engineered-food-the-labeling-debate#
4.2 “Why Genetically Modified Foods Should Be Labeled”
Bartolotto, Carole. “Why Genetically Modified Foods Should be Labeled,” HuffPost: Food for Thought. December 4, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carole-bartolotto/why-genetically-modified-food_b_4039114.html.
Did you know that you have been enrolled in the largest research study ever conducted in the United States but you never signed a consent form or agreed to participate? That’s because since 1996 you—and basically everyone you know—have been eating genetically modified foods…
Most soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets, and Hawaiian papaya, and some zucchini, yellow squash, and alfalfa are genetically modified. Products such as oil, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar are created from these crops and added to processed foods. This explains why nearly 80 percent of processed and most fast foods contain GMOs.
The question is are GMOs safe for us and the environment? Actually, the answers are not clear. There are no long-term studies demonstrating that GMOs are safe for humans and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not do its own safety testing of GMOs…
The environment is another issue. What are the implications when a genetically modified plant crossbreeds with other plants? The monarch butterflies are declining due to the destruction of milkweed. What other consequences are possible? Super bugs and super weeds are already showing up…
The bottom line is that we have a product in our food supply with unknown health and environmental implications. At the very least, we should have these foods labeled. However, try as we might, we cannot make that happen in the U.S. Even though 9 out of 10 people want them labeled, the biotech companies and food manufacturers do not… Over 60 countries, including China, label GMOs and some countries ban them. Why can’t we have transparency in our food supply?
Washington’s Initiative 522 to label genetically engineered foods, on the November  ballot, will help us get the transparency we desire. But companies such as Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (a trade group) will pay millions to create misleading and factually incorrect ads telling Washingtonites that labeling will cost money, hurt farmers, and isn’t necessary because GMOs are safe. However, we know if a food has high fructose corn syrup or trans fat, or is irradiated. Why can’t we know if it’s genetically engineered? The biggest fear of these companies is that once GMOs are labeled, we won’t want to eat them anymore. And that may happen, just like it did when we found out there was pink slime in our hamburgers!
4.3 Monsanto’s Position
Monsanto. “Labeling Food and Ingredients Developed from GM Seed.” Monsanto.com. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/food-labeling.aspx (accessed November 30, 2014).
At-a-Glance: Our View on Food Labeling
The safety of our products is our first priority, and multiple health societies, hundreds of independent scientific experts, and dozens of governments around the world have determined that foods and ingredients developed through biotechnology [or genetic modification (GM)] are safe.
Each country establishes its own food labeling laws. Within the United States, the government has established clear guidance with respect to labeling food products containing GM ingredients; we support this approach. We also support food companies’ choices to voluntarily label food products noting certain attributes (e.g., organic) based on their customers’ preferences and provided the labeling is truthful and not misleading.
We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks. Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.
Viewpoints on Labeling GM Foods and Ingredients in the United States
…Within the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food labeling. FDA guidance requires labeling of food products containing ingredients from GM seed if there is a meaningful difference between that food and its conventional counterpart. The American Medical Association (AMA) supports FDA’s approach and approved a formal statement asserting that there is no scientific justification for special labeling of foods containing GM ingredients.
…FDA allows food manufacturers the choice to voluntarily label their products noting certain attributes or production methods (e.g., organic) provided the label is truthful and not misleading. We support this approach. Food companies are in the best position to determine what type of information meets the needs and desires of their customers.
Monsanto website, accessed November 30, 2014, http://www.monsanto.com.
4.4 “Why We Shouldn’t Label (or Worry about) Genetically Modified Products”
English, Cameron. “GMO Foods: Why We Shouldn’t Label (or Worry about) Genetically Modified Products.” PolicyMic. March 9, 2012. http://mic.com/articles/5226/gmo-foods-why-we-shouldn-t-label-or-worry-about-genetically-modified-products.
Last year, 14 states attempted to pass legislation requiring that genetically modified (GMO) foods be labeled as such. And I learned this week that California is now following in their footsteps to become number 15. The petition in my home state is being sold with the tagline “It’s our right to know” what we’re eating, and ominous suggestions about the health risks associated with eating GMO foods.
Appealing to voters’ “rights” and stirring up health concerns are guaranteed ways to bring attention to political causes, but in the case of GMO food labeling, both tactics are fallacious. There is no reason to label these generally harmless foods and doing so could create unnecessary concern among the public…
The idea of food laden with foreign genes may sound scary, but it really isn’t. Since we don’t live in a sterile environment, all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms— and their DNA. According to agricultural scientist Steve Savage, this fact shouldn’t concern us. “Even though we are eating microbes, their genes, and their gene products on a grand scale, it is almost never a problem. In fact, some of these microbes go on to become part of our own bank of bacteria, etc., that live within our digestive system—often to our benefit.”
Savage goes on to point out that the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter. “We know the exact sequence of the gene, its location in the plant’s chromosomes, what the gene does,” Savage says. The result is that we can more easily determine how safe GMO foods are for consumption, compared to their natural counterparts.
But, that’s not the only good thing about GMO foods. Genetic engineering has allowed scientists to develop crops that consume less water, grow in harsh environments, and produce less carbon dioxide, as molecular biologist Henry Miller points out. Put another way, these technological advances have made it possible to produce cheaper food in greater quantities and in a more sustainable fashion. Food security and environmental protection are political causes typically championed by progressives. So why are these same people pushing for GMO food labeling?
…Most importantly, science education doesn’t come from food packaging. There’s simply no way to properly educate consumers about the foods they’re eating at the point of sale. That requires a concerted effort on the part of scientists and educators (which is already underway), and a desire to learn on the part of consumers. There’s no reason to begin that process by feeding people misleading information during their weekly grocery runs.
Of course, that last sentence assumes that supporters of food labeling petitions are interested in educating people about nutrition, which they aren’t. The environmentalists and public health advocates behind these measures are trying to force their preferences on the public through the initiative process. If you think that’s just the ranting of an idealistic libertarian, considering that prominent scientists and science writers have been saying the same thing for many years.
If for no other reason, the opinion of experts ought to be enough to put a stop to exaggerated fears of genetic engineering and baseless food labeling campaigns.
- What impact will labeling of GM food products have on producers and developers of GMO foods?
- What impact will labeling of GM food products have on research of GMOs?
- What impact will labeling of GM food have on consumers?
- What would be the most effective and efficient system for labeling GM food?
1. World Health Organization, 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods, accessed October 4, 2013, http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/.
2. Nancy Harris, ed., “Introduction,” in Genetically Engineered Foods (San Diego: Greenhaven, 2004), 3-9.
3. J. S. Coker, “Crossing the Species Boundary: Genetic Engineering as Conscious Evolution,” Futurist, 46, no. 1 (2012), 23–27.
4. Ibid., p. 23.
5. World Health Organization, 20 Questions.
6. Food and Water Watch, “The Case for GE Labeling,” Fact Sheet, May 2012, http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/CaseForGELabeling.pdf.
7. Foresight. “The Future of Food and Farming: Final Project Report (London: The Government Office for Science, 2011).
8. Coker, “Crossing the Species Boundary.”
9. Shelley Mika, “Britons Show Distaste for Biotech Foods: Americans More Optimistic about GM Food Safety,” Gallup, Inc., October 18, 2005, http://www.gallup.com/poll/19261/Britons-Show-Distaste-Biotech-Foods.aspx.
10. Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan, GMO Myths and Truths: An Evidence-Based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops, (London: Earth Open Source, 2012).
11. Josh Schonwald, The Taste of Tomorrow (New York: Harper, 2012).
12. Schonwald, The Taste of Tomorrow.
13. Antoniou, GMO Myths and Truths.
14. R. Cummins, “Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops: Why We Need a Global Moratorium,” in R. Sherlock and J. Morrey, eds., Ethical Issues in Biotechnology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 213–219.
15. J.E. Carpenter, “Impact of GE Crops on Biodiversity,” GM Crops, 2, no. 1 (2011), 7–23, doi:10.4161/gmcr.2.1.15086.
16. Ibid., p. 7.
17. D. Gertsberg, “Loss of Biodiversity and Genetically Modified Crops,” GMO Journal: Food Safety Politics, June 17, 2011, http://gmo-journal.com/2011/06/17/loss-of-biodiversity-and-genetically-modified-crops/.
18. Janet E. Carpenter, “Impact of GM Crops on Biodiversity,” GM Crops 2(1) (2011), 1-17.
19. R. Cummins, “Hazards of GE foods and crops.”
20. Schonwald, The Taste of Tomorrow.
21. Soil Association, Feeding the Future: How Organic Farming Can Help Feed the World (Bristol, UK: Soil Association, 2012).
22. American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods,” news release, June 12, 2013, http://www.aaas.org/news/statement-aaas-board-directors-labeling-genetically-modified-foods .
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1 Center for Food Safety, Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Laws Map, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/ge-map
2 Center for Food Safety, U.S. Polls on GE Food Labeling, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/us-polls-on-ge-food-labeling
3 Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, Genetically engineered varieties of corn, upland cotton, and soybeans, by State and for the United States, 2000-12, Washington, D.C.: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2012. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us.aspx#.UUn-Fhc4tiM
4 Center for Food Safety, State Labeling Initiatives, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/state-labeling-initiatives