Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crops or animals whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated by way of genetic engineering. GMOs can be used to limit the adverse effects of insects, disease, and drought, and can also amplify the food growth process or enhance the levels of beneficial vitamins or nutrients in the food in question.[1,2]
The GMO Money Trail
As genetically modified technology continues to be developed, some sectors are seeing the economic benefits--especially farmers. Because of this technology, a new trait of drought-tolerant corn is now available, according to Shane Kinne, director of public policy for the Missouri Corn Growers Association. Kinne says that a secondary benefit is that genetically modified crops will also help to feed a rapidly growing world population.
Labeling Laws in Limbo
GMO labeling is clearly a hot topic. Consumer demand for GMO food labeling as well as foods that do not contain GMOs is strong. Only a couple states have successfully passed GMO labeling laws while most have not.
Along with genetically modified crops comes an onslaught of legislation to attempt to regulate if and how it is presented to consumers. In the U.S., more than 70 bills in over 30 states have been introduced with regard to GMO labeling. Connecticut and Maine have already passed labeling laws, but they cannot be implemented until other states do the same. In Florida, new labeling laws for raw fruits and vegetables are still being hammered out.[4,5] Vermont's food labeling laws are expected to go into effect in 2016. Voters in Colorado and Oregon rejected bills that would require GMO labeling.
“Non-GMO” is one of the fastest-growing label trends on U.S. food packages, with sales of such items growing 28 percent last year to about $3 billion, according to market-research firm Nielsen. In a poll of nearly 1,200 U.S. consumers for The Wall Street Journal, Nielsen found that 61 percent of consumers had heard of GMOs and nearly half of those people said they avoid eating them. The biggest reasons was because it "doesn't sound like something I should eat."
In some states, figuring out whether or not to label is only part of the battle. In January 2015, legislation was introduced asking that genetically modified products in Rhode Island be clearly labeled––but the bill also calls for determining a specific definition of what a “genetically engineered product” would mean in RI. This particular bill has been introduced to Congress multiple times, but state representatives believe that increased momentum and attention (perhaps from consumers and the media) may be the trick to passing it this time.
Despite the various bills floating around each state, what it all boils down to––for the time being––is what federal food authorities say. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the disclosure requirements of foods, declares that there is no meaningful difference between GMO and non-GMO foods, which suggests that labeling would be slow to be enacted by the federal agency.
U.S. vs. EU
One of the biggest reasons the U.S. and Europe cannot reap the benefits of a large-scale free trade agreement is because of differences in how genetically modified foods are handled on each side. Many U.S. crops are manipulated in order to ward off disease, drought and insects, as well as to boost levels of food production and nutrient levels. However, such practices related to genetic modification are, for the most part, banned in the EU. While the U.S. would like Europe to ease their aversion to GMOs, Europe is skeptical of their safety and long-term effects.
According to the European Food Safety Authority, if they rule a genetically modified crop as “safe,” then “member states can then decide to opt out from cultivating it.” There are eight crops in the EU that have been given the green light for cultivation. Although this law was always expected to pass, some groups say it gives unfair power to large companies that supply genetically modified seeds that can contaminate other crop fields through the process of cross-pollination. Farmers who experience contaminated crops will be given no compensation. A new problem that’s arisen is the risk of cross-pollination between GM crop fields and non-GM crop fields across national borders. Ultimately, this could force countries that previously did not allow cultivation of GM crops to approve it due to widespread and uncontrollable contamination. This is currently the case in Paraguay and Brazil.
Current EU legislation is expected to be finalized in March. Additional clauses state that countries that oppose cultivation can negotiate with companies individually, to ask them not to market the products on their territory. States would also be able to block GMOs under town planning and other rules.
Where Do We Go from Here?
So many questions linger as it relates to the use of genetic modification and food labeling. What if various states come up with their own definition of what a genetically modified food actually is? How do food manufacturers and processors organize and streamline foods that have and have not been genetically modified? What’s the solution for non-GM crops that become unintentionally contaminated? Despite the ongoing list of questions, some organizations have established their own thoughts on going forward.
For example, the American Medical Association favors mandatory, pre-market safety testing, something that has not been required by U.S. regulators. The World Health Organization and the U.N. food agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, say the safety of genetically modified foods must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In the U.S. at least, the debate over GMO labeling and, ultimately, the safety of GM foods, will continue to be fought in federal court. Several food industry trade groups filed suit in June 2014 to prevent Vermont’s GMO labeling law from going into effect. Until this case is resolved, whether the U.S. federal agencies responsible for food labeling make plans for full transparency on the issue (regardless of scientifically-based and verified risk) remain unknown.