THE BLOG
12/18/2013 10:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

Genetically Misunderstood Organisms: The Debate Rages On... (Part 2)

In Part 1 we investigated the concerns of individuals, world governments and global organizations around the health of genetically modified (GM) foods. That's only half the story. Today we fix our spotlight on the rest of the debate.

Out Here, They're Everywhere

According to Greg Jaffe, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, approximately 70 percent of processed foods in America contain "at least one ingredient made from [genetically engineered] crops." And none of these foods is required to be labeled. This means that most of us have been eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for almost two decades without even realizing it. "[C]orn, soybeans, some cottonseed oil, canola oil and sugar ... come mostly as invisible ingredients in processed foods," explains The New York Times.

And this is the essence of the issue for me. I don't necessarily think GMOs are bad, but I sure do believe we are entitled to know what is in the food that we eat. If a food product contains GMOs, there should be a sticker, label or ID on the package that is plainly visible, letting shoppers know before they purchase the product! Why would the FDA not require this?

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A drink's label displays its Non-GMO Project verification (photo courtesy of Photologue_np/Flickr)

The GMO Giants and the Labeling Game

So now you may be wondering: Who's responsible for all these GM products, and why don't they have to be labeled?

Above all others, Monsanto, the St. Louis-based, multibillion-dollar, multinational agriculture company, has been the poster child for the rise of GMOs. Other major agriculture and biotech players include BASF, Bayer, DuPont, and Syngenta. Just look at the list of donors to the "No on 37" campaign (the opponents of California's 2012 initiative to mandate GMO labeling), and you'll see food manufacturers like PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestle, and Coca Cola, among other household grocery brands.

Monsanto's three stated reasons for opposing mandatory labeling include the following: the allegedly well-established safety of GM products (still up for debate); a responsibility to their customers/partners whose food and beverage products are called into question by pro-labeling campaigns; and the fact that labeling may contribute to challenges in acceptance of GM technology.

For the record, here is Monsanto's official position on GMOs, as expressed by Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak of the company's Public Affairs office in St. Louis:

Consumers are increasingly interested in agriculture and in understanding how food is produced. As consumers ourselves, we place the highest priority on the safety of our products and have a dedicated team of health and safety professionals conduct rigorous and comprehensive testing on each. In fact, seeds with GM traits have been reviewed and tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture and have been shown to be as safe as conventional crops -- with no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals. After 30 years of research and assessments, credible and independent public health societies and experts around the world also have reviewed the scientific evidence and determined food grown from GMO crops is safe to eat.

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Rational Parliament met in central London to debate whether GM food has a contribution to make toward meeting global food demand, and "Evidence, please" signs were used in the heat of the debate (photo courtesy of Rational Parliament/Flickr)

Kapsak said that the safety of GMO crops has been confirmed by numerous third-party organizations, including the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, the World Health Organization, the Society of Toxicology, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Union Commission.

So why the strong opposition to labeling? For one, food manufacturers and distributors are worried that we might not like what we see. It's clear that GMOs are common throughout the grocery aisles, but for now they're simply -- and conveniently -- invisible. A common concern expressed by both farmers and food companies alike is that consumers will be unnecessarily scared off by labels.

Let's look back to the first GM crop to hit the produce aisle: the Flavr Savr tomato. This tomato was engineered to stay firmer and tastier longer. Also welcomed by most consumers, surprisingly, was the fact that these tomatoes had been genetically engineered.

Calgene, the California biotech company (since acquired by Monsanto) that brought the product to market, maintained that complete transparency and consumer buy-in were essential to the success of the product. In addition to clear labels, informational pamphlets and even product experts were available in-store to ensure consumer satisfaction. Perhaps ironically, the Flavr Savr tomato was eventually taken off the market because it proved too costly to produce.

The FDA Conundrum

Regardless of corporate opinions on labeling, the United States Food and Drug Administration should have the authority here. And they do... to some extent.

Here's a surprising factoid: Because the FDA initially decided that genetically engineered crops, when compared with their traditional counterparts, are generally safe, GMOs are not considered food additives and thus do not require further approval. This "blanket" approval essentially exempts all new GM food products from the FDA's food safety regulations.

In other words, companies do not need approval from the FDA to develop and/or sell new GMO foods. They can voluntarily consult the FDA regarding food safety, but they don't have to; the companies can decide for themselves what tests should be done to ensure that their new food product is safe. Even after a consultation with the FDA, these companies are not required to follow the FDA's recommendations.

The Final Roundup

Finally, the politics of GMOs extends far beyond consumer concerns. Due to Monsanto's dominant market position, many farmers are unable to find competitive non-GM seed. This comes largely as a result of the fact that many types of GM seeds are designed to withstand the use of the world's most popular herbicide, none other than Monsanto's Roundup.

Unfortunately, the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) has resulted in the rise of superweeds. Basically, when coupled with Roundup Ready seed, Roundup herbicide seemed to work like a charm... until the weeds caught up. As farmers used more and more of the herbicide, weeds became more and more resistant. According to Nature, "In 2004, herbicide-resistant amaranth [a type of weed] was found in one county in Georgia; by 2011, it had spread to 76." This resulted in some Georgia farmers losing as much as half of their crop yields to the weed.

It's clear that many conventional farmers turn to genetic modification in response to disease, drought, weeds, and other unfavorable conditions. Benefits of GM crops for farmers include improving production efficiency, reducing use of pesticides and other pollutants, and supporting sustainable production of new and existing crops. These characteristics are obvious advantages in developing countries too.

Overall, this is a complicated topic surrounded by confusing information, conflicting interests, and general uncertainty. Susan Rockefeller, an environmental champion and an international philanthropist, puts it this way:

GMOs are part of our daily lives. ... Much research has been done to create seeds that better feed the world's poor. I think the controversy on GMOs needs to be more clearly articulated. Transparency and labeling is one issue; who owns the seeds and how to patent them is another. To say all GMOs are bad is analogous to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

She articulates her point well. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that "there is a lot we don't know about the risks of GE -- which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution."

If it's important to you to steer clear of GMOs, here's how:
  • Choose organic products, especially fruits and vegetables. All organic foods sold in the U.S. must be certified according to the USDA National Organic Standards, which prohibit the use of GMOs.
  • Look for the "Non-GMO Project Verified" seal on products.
  • Look at the barcode on the produce sticker. A four-digit code means the product was "conventionally grown." A five-digit code that starts with a "9" means that the product was organically grown. A five-digit code that starts with an "8" means that the product was genetically modified.
For the following items, unless it's labeled "organic" or "non-GMO," it was probably fed, grown, or processed with GM products:
  • Papayas
  • Zucchinis
  • Yellow summer squash
  • Potatoes
  • Dairy
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Processed foods containing soy, corn, canola oil, and/or cottonseed oil

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The majority of corn grown is the U.S. is now genetically modified (photo courtesy of Perry McKenna/Flickr)

Undoubtedly, this debate will continue to rage. In the meantime, do your own research, consider the pros and cons, then make your best decisions on the foods you feed your family. A worthwhile experiment would be to attempt a non-GMO diet in order to truly determine whether you can "feel" the difference. This will not be easy; for example, how do you know whether the sauce at your favorite Italian place was made with GM tomatoes? You don't, but you can at least control what groceries you buy and eat at home.

If you have the commitment and the curiosity to attempt this, please share your perceived results with me. For now, the debate rages on...

Hannah Malan, formerly of the SCGH editorial staff, contributed significantly to this blog series.

Read more from Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.