Making Sense of the Debate Over Genetically Modified Organisms

Annie Castellani


The year is off to a strong start in the battle over the presence of genetically modified organisms in our food supply. Commonly known as GMOs, these highly contested phenomena include crop seeds that scientists can modify by inserting genes from different species. Through this type of genetic engineering, also known as biotechnology, scientists can produce disease, drought and herbicide-resistant crops.


Despite these benefits, the national debate over genetically modified organisms looms large. Do GMOs pose human health and environmental problems? Should food and agrochemical companies be required to label their products containing GMOs? A survey of some key voices in this space provides little clarity. Although each side would like the public to believe one-word answers, they are virtually nonexistent. Precisely because of this information mosaic, standardized disclosure about the presence and impact of GMOs might be the best way to set the record straight.


Others seem to agree. Recent events reflect a growing nationwide movement in favor of labeling. Just last year, Connecticut and Maine passed GMO-labeling laws, and legislators introduced bills related to labeling in almost 30 states. These states include Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, some of which must enact similar laws to activate the Maine and Connecticut laws. And pro-labeling ballot initiatives lost by narrow margins in California and Washington State in 2012 and 2013, respectively.


This state-by-state press is pushing the food industry to propose solutions that promote a degree of transparency. Food groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, are advocating for a federal GMO law with a voluntary labeling standard and increased oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine whether genetically engineered products are safe. They claim that a national solution is preferable to a state-by-state approach, which has already cost them millions of dollars in anti-labeling efforts.




These companies also recognize that concerned citizens can use their purchasing power to sway policy. General Mills announced in January that it is producing GMO-free Cheerios because of consumer demand. This development comes in the wake of a decision by Whole Foods to replace Chobani yogurt this year due, in part, to the company’s reliance on genetically modified feed for cows and a pledge by Ben & Jerry’s to source only GMO-free ingredients by mid-2014. Although there are no current labeling requirements in the United States, Whole Foods will require by 2018 labels on all foods containing genetically modified organisms. The ingredients in Trader Joe’s namesake products are already GMO-free, although they do not make this guarantee with respect to animal products due to the scarcity of GMO-free grain feed.


Additionally, the federal government is driving the national discussion over the safety of genetically modified organisms, which informs and motivates the labeling debate. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recommended deregulation of genetically engineered corn and soybeans that are resistant to herbicides including 2,4-D. The FDA is undergoing a 45-day public review and comment period over its draft environmental impact statement, which finds that the new plants do not present a pest risk. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release a report in the beginning of the year on its review of the herbicides.


If approved, genetically altered 2,4-D-resistant soybeans and corn seeds – which can withstand one of the primary though non-carcinogenic ingredients in Agent Orange – will be put on the market by agrochemical company Dow AgroSciences as early as next year. The outcome will undoubtedly stoke the fires already burning between different camps.


The courts will be active on this issue as well. Three global agrochemical companies, DuPont, Syngenta and Agrigenetics Inc., an affiliate Dow AgroSciences, filed a lawsuit in January challenging a law recently enacted in Kauai, Hawaii. The law requires that they disclose the location of genetically modified crops and pesticide use and create buffer zones around schools, homes and hospitals. The companies claim that Kauai County has no jurisdiction to regulate their activities, that disclosure will lead to vandalism, and that buffer zones will cause economic harm due to land loss. Proponents of the law respond that they are merely seeking disclosure of pesticide use that can harm people and the environment.




Despite these developments, the actual facts regarding GMOs are complicated. And the dialogue about genetically modified organisms remains mired in semantics, corporate mistrust, ideological leanings and misinformation. So for the average person, the world of GMOs is just too difficult to navigate.


Part of the confusion with the discussion is that, like good litigators, both sides may tell a truthful story. The problem is that one’s framing of the story differs depending on whether it supports an argument for or against genetically modified food. This communication breakdown underscores the need for transparency.


The best example of this failure to communicate occurs with respect to the hot button issue of food safety. GMO advocates, including many scientists and agrochemical companies like Monsanto, believe that genetically modified organisms are safe for public consumption. And they reference internal safety testing, the absence of clear studies proving that GMOs cause harm in humans, and oversight by the USDA, EPA and FDA to support this conclusion.


For instance, after 25 years of funded research covering over 130 research projects, the European Union concluded in a 2010 report that GMOs “are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.” And, as recently pointed out by Amy Harmon in the New York Times, groups such as the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences have made similar findings regarding the lack of evidence linking GMOs to higher health and environmental risks.


Some proponents, including Columbia University development economist Jeffrey Sachs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, even see a prominent role for genetically modified seeds. These so called “improved” seeds – such as “golden rice” – can be fortified with nutrients like Vitamin A to enhance nutrition for impoverished people in the developing world.


Anti-GMO advocates insist that GMOs may be harmful because the issue lacks scientific consensus. According to Green America, an environmental nonprofit focused on ethical consumerism, recent studies published after the European Union report indicate that the jury is still out. In a Canadian study, Bt toxin, a pesticide injected into genetically altered corn and cottonseed, was found in the blood of pregnant women and fetuses. In another, Brazilian researchers concluded that this pesticide can cause abnormalities in the blood, including anemia and leukemia.


The Center for Food Security, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, lists a number of potential health risks from biotechnology, including allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, suppression of the immune system, cancer, loss of nutrients, and the potential for a genetic insertion to alter previously nontoxic elements. And the Non-GMO Project makes similar claims and references numerous scientific studies that show the potential to cause harm to humans.


Adding to the confusion, even the very same facts can be used to draw opposite conclusions. Proponents of genetically modified foods cite to a lack of real world examples that indicate harmful effects, despite the widespread presence of GMOs in the food supply for nearly two decades. In response, anti-GMO advocates argue that not enough time has gone by to consider their effects and that long-term studies are scarce.


Safety testing is no different. As pointed out by food writer Nathanael Johnson in his six-month investigation into GMOs for the environmental news magazine Grist, the safety testing process is technically voluntary, and there are no clear requirements. Yet, producers of GMOs engage in testing to ensure that the FDA does not stop their products from going on the market and to avoid a massive loss of time and money invested in development. Additionally, the EPA and USDA conduct mandatory regulatory reviews of these products. Opponents of genetically modified organisms, however, cite to the lack of mandatory requirements for safety testing. They also note that the agrochemical companies – the very ones that benefit from good results in safety testing – are setting their own rules. They view the federal agencies as mere rubber stamps.


The emergence of herbicide-resistant “super weeds” is another battleground. Since genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops enable farmers to liberally spray chemicals without damage, over time weeds have developed resistance to herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup. These super weeds compel companies to stay one step ahead of the game. So they develop new genetically altered crops that are immune to super weed-fighting herbicides, like the 2,4-D resistant corn and soybeans that form the basis of the USDA’s recent environmental impact statement.



Those skeptical of GMOs fear that this approach is only a temporary solution. They argue that each new wave of herbicide-resistant seeds and herbicides, like “Roundup Ready” and Roundup, will inevitably lead to new super weeds. And the need for even more GMOs and herbicides will continue. Even the USDA recognizes a great risk in the potential to speed up the evolution of 2,4-D resistant weeds.


But GMO proponents counter that herbicide-resistant weeds existed long before the introduction of genetically modified crops. And such advances are beneficial to farmers who are plagued by yield reductions and increased costs due to the resistance of super weeds to herbicides like Roundup. Currently, farmers limit use of 2,4-D because the weed killer is toxic to their young crops. The unregulated genetically altered corn and soybeans would allow farmers to improve yields and use 2,4-D to fight super weeds. They would also allow farmers to limit tilling, a technique that GMO supporters claim leads to erosion and chemical runoff.


Anti-GMO advocates also say that farmers have a tendency to increase spraying with herbicide-resistant crops. And before agrochemical companies release a new herbicide and its herbicide-resistant seed, farmers also engage in heavy spraying of chemical mixtures to try to kill super weeds. The implication is that more spraying leads to increased toxicity. Yet, some advocates of genetically modified foods propose that they actually will reduce overall toxicity of herbicides, regardless of the quantity sprayed, because the chemicals used today are less toxic.


Arguments with respect to the effects of 2,4-D and other toxins on human health and the environment, as well as the impact of GMOs on the environment, are equally messy. Perhaps the most unsettling battle centers on whether herbicides like Roundup have decimated milkweed, the primary food source and resting ground for monarch butterflies. In 2012, researchers recorded the lowest numbers on record for the monarch butterfly population in North America.




It quickly becomes apparent from an investigation into the GMO debate – infused with potentially misleading information and public relations campaigns – that perception plays a major role. Mandatory disclosure of GMO content based on universal standards, therefore, appears to be one of the only effective solutions to a growing chorus of discontent. It would also give consumers comfort that the FDA is making safety determinations instead of rubber-stamping the research of big agrochemical companies.


Not surprisingly, food companies oppose mandatory labeling. They reference a lack of evidence over the past two decades that genetically modified organisms have harmed people, and they fear that labeling will stigmatize GMOs. This prediction may turn out to be true.


Labels also will highlight that GMOs are ubiquitous across certain food categories. For instance, a majority of American grown soybeans and corn are already genetically modified, and 70 percent of processed food sold in grocery stores contains GMOs. According to the USDA, 93 percent of soybeans and 85 percent of corn crops in the United States are genetically engineered. Popular foods with those ingredients include cereal and soda.

But labels may not stop the buying habits of the core market for these products. After all, many types of processed food are already known to produce detrimental health effects, like obesity and diabetes, yet people continue to purchase these products anyway.


This is especially true because low costs contribute to the popularity of processed foods. Agrochemical companies capitalized on the fear of increased costs to help defeat the ballot initiatives in Washington and California. They cite to findings that it would be costly to substitute non-GMO ingredients. Others argue that the labor costs would increase due to weeding non-GMO crops and segregating these products.


Those in favor of labeling, however, counter that increased demand and production for non-GMO products would likely bring the prices down and that, regardless, genetically modified foods like corn and soybeans account for just a small fraction of total packing costs. Pro-labeling advocates also cite to functional GMO segregation processes that global companies already have in place in Europe. And they point out the low cost of changing labels, which is a regular practice.


Notably, the nation lags far behind other nations on this issue. In fact, more than 60 countries worldwide, including each member of the European Union, Russia, China, India and Brazil, require GMO labeling or even ban GMOs altogether. These restrictions already place limits on U.S. exports. 




Most importantly, the American appetite for labeling is growing. In a New York Times poll conducted in the beginning of 2013, 93 percent of respondents expressed support for labeling. Other studies, including ones conducted by Thomson Reuters and ABC News, resulted in similar numbers. And last April, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, a mandatory GMO-labeling bill.


So if the industry is hip to consumer demand, then it should recognize that labeling is now a part of that calculus. Companies label other controversial ingredients – including high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners – and have no problem selling products with those labels. In fact, the FDA currently requires labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients and additives.


Fair or unfair, corporate objections to federally mandated and uniform labeling only contribute to consumer mistrust. As pointed out in the New Yorker, mistrust of corporations as the source of safety data on GMOs grows contributes to public skepticism. This is particularly true because companies like Monsanto have earned billions off of their dual roles as producers of herbicides and of seeds that are modified to resist those herbicides. The resistance of agrochemical companies also creates the perception that they are hiding something.


These arguments aside, the GMO debate really boils down to choice. Just as Americans are starting to demand transparency in the supply chain of their apparel – but many continue to purchase brands with questionable human rights records – they are equally demanding transparency in the food supply. In a nation built upon notions of individual rights and freedoms, citizens have a right to know what is in their food. And they have a right to know that manufacturers of toxins like DDT are in control of large portions of U.S. agriculture.


As the system currently exists, food companies burden the consumer to research whether food is genetically modified in a lab and also safe. This is a near impossible task for those without the time and energy to dig deep into scientific studies and federal regulations. Yet, with mandatory and standardized labeling, consumers can make better-informed choices based on a more transparent understanding of our nation’s food supply.



Author Bio:

Annie Castellani is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Fraperstaarje (Flickr); Rex Roof (Flickr); Sam Beebe (Flickr)
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