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The great GMO debate

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

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. gmo corn test tube

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.”

To label or not?

Anti-GMO activists argue that not enough testing has been done to be sure that consuming foods with genetically modified ingredients is safe for humans. That, they argue, is the reason for pushing labeling laws.

“The CFS has been very involved in the food labeling debate and has taken the role of drafting legislation and ballot initiatives across the country that would require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods,” says Colin O’Neil, director of biotechnology for the Center for Food Safety (CFS). “We’re seeing [that] an overwhelming majority of Americans support mandatory labeling. They want to know what they’re buying and feeding their families.”

The main reason biotech companies say they oppose labeling is that it can carry the stigma that such foods may not be safe, a position they contend is false.

“The overwhelming preponderance of evidence tells us there is no concern,” says Cathleen Enright, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI). “The science is settled. In addition to studies organizations like ours have done for the biotech industry, there are 400 or so independent studies that say GMO foods are safe to eat. I know there are a handful of studies that dispute that—there might be a dozen in the last 20 years—and every single one has been rebutted by the national or global scientific community.

“We support the right to know,” she adds. “It’s the mechanism we disagree with.”

One of the organizations firmly in the biotech camp, surprisingly, is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI has become well known for speaking out in support of consumers on a host of food and health issues, and the organization believes GMOs are safe.

“Our view is that the current crops and foods made from those crops are safe to eat,” says Greg Jaffe, CSPI’s director of biotechnology. “The FDA has said it, the WHO has said it, the National Academy of Science, even the European Food Safety Authority have said all the crops they’ve looked at so far are safe to eat.”

However, that doesn’t mean that CSPI thinks the concerns of anti-GMO activists are off base. “I think there are some potential risks from GE [genetically engineered] crops, from environmental and food safety perspectives, and so we do believe that there needs to be federal oversight of these crops before they are marketed,” Jaffe says. “And we believe that the current oversight has some weaknesses that need to be improved to ensure going forward that crops continue to be safe.”

He adds that the easiest way to improve oversight would be to put one agency in charge of the process.

“There are currently three agencies involved in oversight: the FDA, the EPA and the USDA,” he explains. “The one least involved is FDA, and the one we think should be the most involved is FDA. Sen. [Dick] Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill in the early 2000s that would have done this, but it didn’t pass.”

At present, FDA has “voluntary consultation” where GMOs are involved. In 1992, the agency ruled that it didn’t consider GMOs to be food additives and for that reason foods made with GMO ingredients received FDA’s GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status.

As a result CSPI is not in favor of mandatory labeling, Jaffe says. “If a food isn’t safe, the answer isn’t to label it,” he explains. “If it’s not safe, get FDA to ban it. Now, some consumers do want a right to know, and I think that’s a valid concern. But there are a lot of ways to get information and promote transparency that would be less [intrusive] than government-imposed labels.”

But Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and a longtime food critic, disagrees. Nestle is in favor of “a strong federal law” mandating labeling and thinks the biotech industry should have embraced the idea years ago.

“There was opposition when GM foods were first approved by the FDA, but only from small groups,” she explains. “The biotech industry made a fatal error when it insisted that its foods not be labeled. If the industry had gotten behind the approach of Calgene, which made a GM tomato and labeled it with pride, I think the opposition would have dissipated. People who didn’t want to buy GM foods wouldn’t have to, and everyone else could see that they didn’t drop dead on the spot from eating them.”

The foodservice community

Many operators say they have at least a layman’s understanding of genetic engineering and privately have some opinions on its value. However, there appears to be a wait-and-see attitude within the foodservice community, either because there are other, more pressing issues to deal with or because it is not something their customers are asking about.

“We are aware of it and we know it could potentially have an impact on our operations, but there is so much we don’t know about it,” says Zia Ahmed, director of dining services at The Ohio State University, in Columbus. “It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. It is definitely on students’ minds, but we still don’t have any significant consensus. There are conflicting reports from both sides.”

That doesn’t mean directors don’t have opinions—sometimes strong ones. Thomas Cooley, R.D., director of dining experience at Inglis House, in Philadelphia, says he is “for” genetic engineering, but “against the three Ms: monopolization, monoculture and Monsanto.”

“What I know so far is most of the GMOs have been designed by corporations so they can patent the seeds,” Cooley suggests. “That is not necessarily keeping the [farming] tradition alive. One of the things farmers have always done is collect seeds from the hardiest plants from one year to plant next year. When you put yourself in the hands of the big seed companies you lose that tradition of collecting your own seed.”

In Cooley’s view, genetically modifying plants simply to make them resistant to bug and weed killers actually thwarts evolution. “What the seed companies are doing is encouraging you to douse your fields with herbicides, with pesticides, because your plants are resistant.

That’s not helping the plant, say, grow a better root system so that weeds can’t invade.”

The promise of tomorrow

If what genetic engineering has accomplished thus far doesn’t seem like it is quite the savior of our food supply, biotechnologists say give it more time.

“The technology that is currently in use has probably reached its maturity,” Enright suggests. “There are other applications out there, such as one that should come out of the regulatory process this year. That is a non-browning apple and the non-browning, lower acrylamide forming potato. What scientists have done is silence the gene that reacts to the ‘wounding’ of the apple or the potato. When those products come to market they could be a game-changer for the industry.”

In another success story that could be ready for approval within the next couple of years, scientists at Iowa State University are preparing to test a genetically modified banana on human subjects. The banana has been engineered to produce higher levels of beta carotene. Their hope is that the banana can be a major source of vitamin A for children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other examples include a purple tomato, made purple by fortifying it with the same antioxidants found in blueberries. A soybean has been created that produces a high-oleic acid that has the characteristics of olive oil. And agriculturalists in Great Britain last month harvested their first crop of camelina, also known as false flax. The seed has been spliced with genes that make Omega-3 fatty acids. If successful, the result will be a new type of nutraceutical, one that will produce a healthy oil normally found only in fish.

CSPI’s Jaffe says one of the most valuable applications of genetic engineering could be modifying oranges to be able to withstand the ravages of citrus greening, a disease that is threatening to wipe out orange production in this country. Infected trees produce fruits that are green, misshapen and bitter, unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice. Most infected trees die within a few years. “Farmers are being forced to abandon entire groves,” Jaffe says. “If we don’t get a handle on this we could see oranges no longer being grown in Florida in a few years.”

Despite these hopeful signs, however, even the most ardent supporters of GMOs say there are limits.

“Genetic engineering is just one technique in the scientist’s toolbox to solve some of the constraints that might exist with current agriculture,” Jaffe says. “I don’t think it’s a panacea. I don’t think it’s going to solve world hunger, food insecurity or allow all crops to adapt to climate change, but I think it can help farmers.”

Enright agrees. “I would never say that genetic engineering is the silver bullet. We need all technologies to feed the world and we need to improve transportation and we need to reduce waste. But I really love the potential.”

But are the harshest critics ready to concede that? CFS’s O’Neil, for one, is not.

“The question is, what is the goal?” he asks. “If the goal is to feed a growing planet, if the goal is to produce food more sustainably, then you don’t really need genetic engineering. What we’ve achieved with genetic engineering in agriculture is success in selling more chemicals. We should be incentivizing real food production that would benefit people.”

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