The great GMO debate

Good or bad? Label or no? Despite 20 years of research, answers aren't yet clear to anyone.

gmo corn test tube

Driving along the highway in Midwestern states, you are likely to see field after field of corn. For the last few years, a growing number of those fields have sported signs marking them as having been planted using seeds from companies like Pioneer and Monsanto.

Those signs mark these as no longer just cornfields. They are also evidence of a technology that shows promise as a means to solve world hunger—or kill us all, one meal at a time, depending on your point of view. They are the products of genetic engineering, a process by which scientists manipulate DNA in a way to give a plant or animal a trait that it did not have before.

Genetic engineering has sparked a heated food-related debate. Three countries—Benin, Serbia and Zambia—have banned GMOs (genetically modified organisms) outright. Another 41 countries, including the entire European Union, mandate labeling of nearly all foods that contain GMOs, and 27 more require labeling of at least some GMO items.

In the U.S., three states have passed bills requiring foods with GMOs to be labeled as such. Vermont’s is slated to go into effect in January 2016, while Connecticut’s and Maine’s have provisos that the legislation will not go into effect until bordering states also pass similar laws. In Vermont, four associations filed suit against the state almost before Gov. Peter Shumlin’s signature on the bill was dry.

“Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on the path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers,” stated the Grocery Manufacturers Association in a press release. (The other organizations joining in the suit are the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.) “Act 120 imposes burdensome new speech requirements—and restrictions—that will affect, by Vermont’s count, eight out of every 10 foods at the grocery store.”

The lawsuit, which the state attorney general recently petitioned the court to vacate, has not dissuaded other states from considering similar measures. In another 27 states, bills mandating labeling have been proposed. In some states, such as California, bills have been defeated and new ones submitted. In others, including Oregon, the legislation has taken the form of voter referendums that will be considered in next month’s elections.

Even Congress has gotten into the act. Two bills to require labeling at the federal level were introduced last year. Neither has made much headway, however.

In April Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced legislation that would prevent mandatory labeling at the local, state or federal level. The bill would require developers of GMOs to submit “a premarket biotechnology notification” to the Health and Human Services (HHS) department seven months before the food is sold. It also would give the HHS the sole authority to determine whether a food should be labeled and “preempts any state and local labeling requirements with respect to bioengineered food.”

“My hope is that this bill will prevent a mishmash of labeling laws across the country,” Pompeo says. “I care deeply about our agricultural community and I want to do everything I can to help them continue to use technologies that produce more food and use less pesticides.”

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