Over the last number of years, the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has undergone a transformation in the United States. Today, genetically modified (GM) food is a high-profile, politically charged issue with a bearing on public health, environmentalism and the future of the food we all consume.
The What, How and Why of GMOs
GM plants have a history dating back several decades, and today, they have become the primary source of many commercial crops. By 2013, 90% of corn and 93% of soybeans grown in the United States were genetically engineered (GE) in some way (1). Other commonly modified crops include alfalfa, sugar beets and canola, and more varieties are being developed and planted in greater numbers for every harvest (2).
At a basic level, GE foods involve the splicing in of genes from one organism into another host organism. Biotech companies, primarily Monsanto, select genes that result in desirable traits in the host plant or animal. In the case of crops, such traits include resistances to insecticides, herbicides (such as RoundUp) and common plant diseases, and even improved yields (3).
GE animals also may be on their way to entering the food supply. The most attention has gone to AquAdvantage salmon, which was engineered to include growth hormones from another fish species to make them grow to a marketable size more quickly (4). Grocery chains big and small recently decided that if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) grants approval for this GE salmon, they will not sell them (5).
While FDA is tasked with regulating GMOs intended for human or animal consumption, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also plays a regulatory role. It oversees field trials of some GE seeds prior to their full introduction to agriculture, and reviews petitions for other GMO crops seeking “non-regulated” status (6).
Labels, Laws and Courts
A powerful backlash has arisen against the increasing role of GMOs in the U.S. food supply. While many other countries have laws in place requiring GMO-containing foods to be labeled, the United States has only recently appeared to drift toward such laws at the federal and state levels. Much of the non-GMO movement is centered on this effort to push through labeling laws, on the basis of the consumer’s “right to know” what is in their food. But many activists rally against the continued approval and existence of GMOs in the food supply, claiming that their impact on the environment and human health is at best unproven or at worst harmful.
The brief history of legislative and grass-roots efforts to label GMOs has seen many twists and turns, and has included many setbacks and small victories for the non-GMO side. Some of the largest corporations in the food and biotechnology industries, meanwhile, have poured tens of millions of dollars into marketing and lobbying campaigns to persuade citizens and lawmakers that GMOs are safe and necessary.
Some of the most important battlegrounds have been at the state level, as ballot initiatives to label GMOs were narrowly defeated in California and Washington within the last two years. Dozens of states have had GMO labeling bills introduced, and Connecticut and Maine were the first to pass such laws. However, actual GMO labeling enforcement will not come into effect in these states unless other Northeastern states pass similar laws. Counties within Hawaii are in the midst of legal wrangling over their right to enforce laws that restrict the planting of GMO crops (7).
Numerous complex lawsuits have flown back and forth between environmental groups, farmers and the biotech industry over the issue of GMOs. One issue brought before courts was the right of a company like Monsanto to sue farmers in the event that patented GMO seeds appear in their fields, even if this occurs accidentally. This series of cases brought a mixed result, with Monsanto retaining the right to enforce its patents and the company promising not to sue innocent farmers. Another major controversy surrounded the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” included in the latest budget bill passed by Congress. Critics of the provision say it handcuffs USDA’s ability to regulate GMO crops, as it may in essence dictate that once GE seeds are planted, they must be allowed to be harvested (8).
One of the core elements of the GMO debate is the evidence or lack thereof on whether GMOs impact health. One scientific study received publicity for its finding that rats fed GMO corn were more likely to develop cancer. The journal that published the study later retracted it, a decision supported by some and criticized by others (9).
The current market for non-GMO foods in the United States is defined by the Non-GMO Project, the primary certifying agency in the fledgling category. Other non-GMO certifiers appear set to step in as demand grows (10). Consumers interested in non-GMO options can either buy USDA certified organic products, for which GMOs are an excluded production process, or seek out non-GMO certified products.
Sales of non-GMO foods and beverages are projected to reach $800 billion worldwide by 2017 (10). Food retailers have responded by reshaping buying policies around the non-GMO movement, including Whole Foods Market, which has said it will require all products on its shelves to either be certified organic, non-GMO or labeled as containing GMOs in the near future. WF
1. “Genetically Engineered Varieties of Corn, Upland Cotton, and Soybeans, by State and for the Unites States, 2000-13,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, updated July 8, 2013, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us.aspx#.Uu7Fc_ldUs8, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
2. “What Is GMO?” Non-GMO Project, http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
3. “Food, Genetically Modified,” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/topics/food_genetically_modified/en/, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
4. “Food Fight over Frankenfish Continues,” WholeFoods Magazine, Jan. 24, 2013, https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/food-fight-over-frankenfish-continues007532, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
5. “GE Salmon Faces Exclusion from Retailers,” WholeFoods Magazine, Oct. 29, 2013, https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/ge-salmon-faces-exclusion-retailers/WF657914, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
6. “Biotechnology Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs),” U.S. Department of Agriculture, modified Dec. 30, 2013, http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=AGRICULTURE&contentid=BiotechnologyFAQs.xml, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
7. “Hawaii's GMO War Headed to Honolulu and Federal Court,” Truthout, Jan. 28, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21506-hawaiis-gmo-war-headed-to-honolulu-and-federal-court, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
8. “Did Congress Just Give GMOs A Free Pass In The Courts?” NPR, Mar. 21, 2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/03/21/174973235/did-congress-just-give-gmos-a-free-pass-in-the-courts, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
9. ‘Journal Retracts Study Linking GMOs with Cancer in Rats,” WholeFoods Magazine, Jan., 2014, https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/journal-retracts-study-linking-gmos-cancer-rats/WF5990113, accessed Feb. 3, 2014.
10. “Non-GMO Foods: Global Market Perspective,” Nov. 2013, available from Packaged Facts, accessed Feb. 2, 2014.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2014