The debate about genetic modification of foods is heating up as last month Vermont became the first state to require genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be declared on food packaging by 2015. But this doesn’t mean the debate is over, far from it. It is widely accepted that Monsanto, one of the developers of many of the genetically modified crops grown in North America today (corn, canola, soy) will sue the state of Vermont. Although Monsanto has not yet filed suit, they have certainly been very active on the pro-GMO side, spending millions of dollars to advertise against similar bills that did end up losing in both California and Washington State. Last week, California lawmakers rejected a 2nd attempt to get GMO labelling passed. It only lost by 2 votes.
The pro-GMO side consistently says that genetically modified foods will solve world hunger that is growing due to both climate change and increasing population. A review of the science of genetic modification by MIT does indicate that genetically modifying food crops, could help, particularly in developing nations. Recent advances include adding wild potato DNA to domestic potato crops to guard against potato blight which was the cause if the Great Irish Famine in the 1800s. There are also advances in non-transgenic genetic modification (where the inserted gene comes from another variety of the same plant as opposed to a completely different species), which may increase food yields without such extreme genetic manipulation.
The anti-GMO side points to a lack of long term scientific data on the effect of genetically modified foods on both people and the environment. It is widely accepted that genetically modified crops do contaminate non-genetically modified crops inadvertently due to both weather patterns and agricultural practices. It is one of the reasons why farmers in Europe lobbied so heavily against allowing genetically modified crops. Since genetically modified crops have been around for less than 20 years (without solving world hunger), there are no long term scientific studies to reference.
Both sides have their downfalls. The pro-GMO side might be taken more seriously about a quest to end world hunger if one of the largest players, Monsanto, hadn’t modified many crops in an effort to make them Round-Up herbicide resistant. Since Monsanto makes Round-Up, and their genetic modification allows copious amounts of Round-Up to be sprayed on the genetically modified crops without harming them, world hunger appears less of a goal than tidy profits.
The anti-GMO side has been prone to quoting science that has not definitively proven the dangers of genetically modified foods. While many of this camp are well educated and speak knowledgeably about the topic, several of the more fringe members of this side have hyped incorrect, apocalyptic information, leading the entire movement to be taken less seriously and branded as extremism.
To many, including the Vermont legislators who passed the labeling bill, the belief is that customers should be able to make the choice for themselves whether one agrees with genetic modification or not. Without labeling legislation right now, customers who are knowledgeable about the available GMO crops (canola, corn, soy, sugar beets and papayas) that are on our store shelves, can generally avoid GMOs because there are so few. Yet all that is set to change as more crops become available. It’s also why we’re starting to see so many companies either make statements on their packaging about GMOs or to join the non-GMO Project. Yet in North America, only Canada has a National Standard regarding the voluntary labeling of GMOs with no guidelines in the USA or Mexico.
Whatever your viewpoint, this is not a debate that will be ending soon.