GMO Labeling: a (chance for) victory for GMO’s

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Think of the worst thing that the food industry has done with genetically modified foods (GMOs). If you say “sell them at all,” I’d disagree. I enjoy genetically modified foods, and they rely less on pesticides than “organically” grown foods. More on that later.

The worst thing that industry has done regarding GMOs is hide the fact that they are GMOs. There is a strong public belief that there is something toxic about GMOs, and nondisclosure only fuels public suspicions. This is why as a pro-GMO consumer, I am actually happy to hear about Vermont’s recent legislation [1] that requires any foods that contain GMOs be labeled as such. Now that genetic modification has been asked to come out of the closet, we can all learn the facts about various GMOs, and stop limiting our knowledge to scary catch-phrases and sound bytes like “Frankenfood.”

This brings me back to the previous point about pesticides. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [2], ”organically grown” food uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but pesticides derived from natural sources (e.g., biological pesticides) may be used in producing organically grown food. The US Department of Agriculture’s Organic Foods Program [3] will allow foods to bear their certified organic label even if food pests and diseases have been managed with “application of nonsynthetic biological, botanical, or mineral inputs.”

In conversations with some acquaintances, it is as if they fantasize that organic farmers are roving the fields each day, gingerly collecting crop-eating bugs from the plants into a jar and releasing them into the forest. At the end of the day, GMO, organic, or local*, no farmer wants to lose crops to enemies such as pests and disease. That farmer is going to use the least expensive and most effective method to poison bugs. That’s just how agriculture works.

The thing that sets the GMO approach apart in the human struggle to protect crops is that it uses DNA biochemistry to make crop-protecting changes within plants. These new traits can be inherited from plant to plant. Some GMOs don’t need any pesticides, synthetic or “botanical,” to keep bugs away. Some are even designed to grow happily in the presence of less fertilizer. This reduces the amount of chemical run-off into the environment. In some cases, GMOs are even made to increase the nutritional value of plants (e.g., golden rice [4]).

Unfortunately, the food industry has taken defensive actions in response to the Vermont bill. Companies, including Ben & Jerry’s, have started pulling some GMO products from their foods [5]. Fabulous! Now our fat, salt, and cholesterol can be more “organic.”

On the positive side, now that a label will make GMOs highly visible, we can all observe first-hand that GMOs, by virtue of being genetically altered, cause no harm to human health. Through conversations with each other around food, I can talk to more friends about how transferring an anti-browning gene into an apple [6] is no more “Frankenstein” than slicing up a lemon and squeezing its juices unnaturally onto cut apples. We can distinguish political and economic from scientific arguments. People who oppose GMO and those who support GMO can both shop with confidence. Hopefully, as the public becomes more educated about the science, people will be able to support or oppose specific engineered foods, rather than being forced to accept or reject any and all GMOs across the board.

*Footnote: I support (reasonably priced) local food because it reduces the need to ship produce across the country, not because I believe it is somehow “healthier.” Now, if only I could find local GMOs…

References:

  1. NPR Blog. Bracing For A Battle, Vermont Passes GMO Labeling Bill. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/04/24/306442972/bracing-for-a-battle-vermont-passes-gmo-labeling-bill
  2. Environmental Protection Agency. Pesticides and Food: What “Organically Grown” Means. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/food/organics.htm
  3. US Department of Agriculture. Electronic code of federal regulation: 205.206 – Crop pest, weed, and disease management practice standard. http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=db18e8182c5d577eff51a071cff3dbee&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.3.354.7&rgn=div8
  4. Golden Rice Project. The science of golden rice. http://www.goldenrice.org/Content2-How/how1_sci.php
  5. NPR Blog. Some Food Companies Are Quietly Dumping GMO Ingredients. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/07/22/333725880/some-food-producers-are-quietly-dumping-gmo-ingredients
  6. Huffington Post. USDA asked to approve non-browning GMO apple. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/29/non-browning-gmo-apple-usda_n_789123.html
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