The debate over the labeling of GMO (genetically modified organism) foods has been raging across the country. Both California and Washington introduced bills, which were narrowly defeated, that would have required the labeling of GMO foods in those states. These bills were fiercely opposed by many of America’s largest agriculture and chemical companies, headed by Monstanto. In California alone $46 million was spent to oppose Prop 37. Despite these defeats many other states, and the federal government, are looking into labeling GMOs.
It may seem like common sense that people should have the right to know what is in the food that they are eating (and at we at Moonflower believe that it is). Especially when over 60 countries, including India and China, already require labeling such products. But as the votes in California and Washington showed, for many peoples its not that simple. Like any debate there are two sides to this issue.
So, here are some of the facts and arguments from both sides. Read them and make up your own mind.
What are GMOs?
Humans have been genetically modifying their crops since agriculture began thousands of years ago. But the selective breeding for desired traits that our ancestors engaged in is not what we mean when we say GMO today.
The definition of GMOs that is used today is “any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.” In other words it is when scientists mutate, insert, or delete genes in an organism. The genes they insert usually come from a different species, and can be inserted into the selected organism using a number of techniques including viruses, very small needles, electroporation, or a gene gun.
Such modification is a very new thing. The first GMOs were bacteria that were modified in 1973. And genetically modified food has only been available in stores since 1994. Since then the technology has exploded; now GMO crops are grown on 420 million acres around the world by 17.3 million farmers.
So how did such a new technology become so ubiquitous so quickly?
The rise of GMOs:
The answer is quite straightforward; GMOs, and the industrial farming techniques that often go with them, produce hardier crops that grow faster, and produce more with less resources than Organic and traditional farming. This means more money for the farmers and more, cheaper food for their customers.
In the words of Robert T. Fraley, the 2013 World Food Prize winner and Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, this has led GMOs to become the “fastest –adopted technology in the history of agriculture.”
So What’s Wrong with GMOs?
There are a number of issues that proponents of the labeling GMOs site in their arguments.
Most of the health-related arguments stem from two factors. One, that GMOs may have long-term health consequences that we don’t know about, and second, that the pesticides used growing GMOs, which have clearly been shown to be harmful to humans, inevitably end up in the food.
The environmental argument against GMOs is based around the amount of energy and fossil fuels that are used in their production, as well as the potential for contamination. Critics believe that the American agricultural industry is hugely inefficient in its use of energy, using an average of 10 kilocalories of energy to produce one calorie of food.
The nutrients, especially nitrates, in fertilizers can cause problems for natural habitats and for human health if they are washed off soil into watercourses or leached through soil into groundwater.
GMOs can also spread, as seeds don’t always stay in the fields that they are planted in. Pollen and seeds can be blown by the wind or carried by animals. This can cause the spread of GMOs to farms that don’t want them and bring them into ecosystems that they can damage.
Because of all these things many believe that GMOs need to be labeled so that consumers know what’s in their food.
But Do We Really Need To?
But there is no science to back up the claim that GMOs are any less nutritious or less safe than Organic food, say Monsanto and their cohorts. And they are right. There has been no conclusive scientific evidence published, in America, that GMOs pose any special health risk.
Agribusiness believes that if they are forced to label there GMO products customers will avoid them, not because of any valid reason, but because they have heard and believe the unproven claims made by the Organic movement.
They also argue that labeling products as GMO would drive up the cost of producing the food and thus increase the price for the consumer. However, the study that backs up this claim assumes that food companies would switch to non-GMO ingredients in all their products to avoid having to label them GMO, this seems very unlikely. It is also a questionable claim as food companies often change their packaging and that cost is usually already built in to the price.
So What Will Happen Next?
Agribusiness recognizes that the momentum of the public opinion is building in favor of labeling GMOs. Because of this they are now pushing for federal regulations on labeling. The reason for this is that it is far easier for them to follow one national standard then to follow 50 different state standards.
Whole Foods recently promised that by 2015 all of the GMO food in its stores will be labeled. Many other stores have seen the consumer demand for such labeling and will likely follow suit.
The consumer demand is there for labeling GMO foods. In the next few years it is very likely that we will see either some form of government regulation on labeling GMOs, or many companies voluntarily labeling their products so that stores will carry them.
The debate is going on now. If you feel strongly about labeling GMOs, now is the time to get involved.
At Moonflower promoting healthy, local, Organic, and non-GMO food is central to our mission as Moab's only food co-op. Wherever possible we choose to carry Organic and non-GMO products. We have also nearly completed the process of labeling every non-GMO product in the store to make it easier for our customers to know exactly what they are buying.