The GMO Labeling Debate

A young woman considers her choices before purchasing produce.

To eat or not to eat- that is the question

The jury’s out on the latest GMO (genetically modified organism) safety debate. The study released 01/24/2015 entitled, No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety, was initiated by nearly 300 independent researchers aiming to prove or disprove the practice of genetically engineered foods. As one may ascertain from the study’s title, the researchers discovered no conclusive evidence for either the safety or potential health risks of bioengineered foods.

What's a GMO?

Genetically modified foods are extremely prevalent in the United States. According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) almost all soy is genetically modified at 94% of total planted acreage. The same is true for corn and cotton, with between 80% and 89% and 84%-91% respectively, of total planted acreage containing GM seeds. It has also been reported that up to 80% of processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs. This is the result of ingredients that are made from corn, canola and soy, such as oils and syrups. Despite this wide-spread exposure, for many Americans, the term "GMO" is still unclear.

To clarify the difference we must get down to the roots. There are three primary seed types and thus, plant origins, in modern agriculture.

Heirloom seeds are those that have been cultivated from a successful harvest. Typically these seeds are carefully selected from crops that tasted great and had fewer growing pains. An heirloom is something of value that has been passed down generationally. The same is true for these seeds. They are often at least 100 years old, but can be much older.

Hybrid seeds are those that have been manually cross-pollinated by a botanist or farmer. This process takes around eight years to finally produce what is considered a “pure” hybrid plant. The mixing of DNA from two different, but related plants to selectively combine the best genes of both plants creates a hybrid plant. These DNA combinations, in theory, could occur naturally, but don't.

A bioengineered seed is created in a similar way that a hybrid seed is, except in a laboratory with the use of sophisticated bioengineering technology. The difference is that the GM seeds often contain a combination of DNA that would likely not occur naturally, i.e. DNA from unrelated plant species. The DNA meshing of unrelated species seems to draw the a large portion of the controversy about genetic modification; this is especially true when the engineering transcends plants and moves on to mammal species.

Origins- the first GM food

Bioengineered foods first made their way into American supermarkets in the 1990s. The Flavr Savr tomato (Calgene) was the first transgenic plant ever sold in the United States. What the geneticists at Calgene created was a tomato that kept fresh longer that could avoid the entire chemical process of artificial ripening. These GM tomatoes were clearly labeled and marketed as genetically modified foods, and were hugely successful in market. Due to circumstances outside the scope of public opinion, the Flavr Savr tomato was eventually taken off the market after Calgene Inc. was sold to the Monsanto Company. Monsanto is currently the single largest supplier of genetically modified seeds in the United States.

Vermont, the world & beyond

In spring of 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass legislature requiring the labeling of foods containing GMOs. Vermont is not alone. The GMO labeling debate is an active topic in the United States as well as across the globe. There are currently 64 countries in the world that have some type of federally mandated regulations pertaining to the cultivation and/or sale of GM foods. With so many countries requiring some type of labeling, it has some Americans questioning why labeling isn’t required on foods sold in the U.S.

Opinions are split

From a scientific perspective, the inherent safety of GMOs is a mixed bag. There are mountains of studies claiming that bioengineered ingredients pose no health risks at all. Monsato opposes GMO labeling stating, “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.” The FDA currently adheres to this line of fact, but reportedly investigates GM crops via private, individualized consultations.

Proponents of the “right to know” stance on GM foods hold mountains of evidence to the contrary of this, claiming that genetically modified foods are responsible for a slew of devastating health conditions but also pose risks to the environment through the probability of cross-pollination between GM and non GM harvests.

This most recent study, No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety, confirms only a combination of what both camps have claimed all along with: (the study) “does not assert that GMOs are unsafe or safe. Rather, the statement concludes that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or lack of safety of GMOs.”

It's a personal choice

In conclusion, where you stand regarding the GMO labeling debate is a personal decision. If you decide to avoid eating GMOs, it can be somewhat of a challenge to find foods, especially prepackaged foods, to eat. Certain organizations such as the Non-GMO Project, provide a list of GMO free products. Many foods that source non-GMO ingredients will self-report this on the product packaging and also on the company’s website.

Where do you stand on the GMO labeling debate? Do you think GMOs are safe or unsafe? Do you think that foods containing GMOs should bear labeling? Chat now.

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