From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine
Are GMOs safe? The debate rages on as anti-GMO activists push the United States to join more than five dozens countries around the world in ordering mandatory food package labeling.
By Mary MacVean
Supermarket shopping can be a dizzying experience of information overload, with so many detailed labels it can make one’s head spin. Still, there is one piece of information many consumers—notably including a vocal contingent of moms—want added to the cacophony: they want products made with GMOs—genetically modified organisms—to say so.
Seems like a simple request? Not even close. A contentious debate over GMOs has spread across the country, raising skepticism over how the government regulates what we eat and pitting worried parents against scientists.
“Our main intention is first to empower the moms with the information they need to take care of their kids and their families,” says Zen Honeycutt, who in 2013 founded the anti-GMO organization Moms Across America. Honeycutt is a 42-year-old mother of three who says she grew up eating Twinkies and washing them down with unpasteurized milk from the farm down the road. She began her mission to raise an alarm about what is in the food we eat when her son developed allergies, which she believes were a result of his diet.
The work of Moms Across America is spreading, and Honeycutt says she has been asked to speak in other countries. The newer and affiliated Moms Across the World fights similar battles against GMOs and pesticides, and uses the power of determined moms all around the globe to persuade people of their position. “We will not stop, we will not give up,” the group declares.
Honeycutt has been threatened and ridiculed for her stand against GMOs, but she is far from alone in wondering if there’s a lack of transparency in federal regulations, and whether profit is clouding the behavior of ag-tech companies. And the anti-GMO forces simply dismiss the scientific consensus that food from genetically engineered crops is safe.
Although an estimated 80 percent of processed foods contain GMO ingredients, the anti-GMO contingent has had successes, including plans by the Whole Foods grocery store chain to require GMO labeling on products by 2018. Some companies have taken GMO ingredients out of their foods in response to consumer concerns. And the Campbell Soup Company decided to support mandatory labeling in a nod to consumers but said it was “in no way disputing the science behind GMOs or their safety.”
It seems like common sense.
“We ate cotton candy at the fair,” says Honeycutt. “No one we knew was allergic to strawberries or watermelon. We could bring peanut butter sandwiches to school. The food has changed. And it is the chemical-farming food system that has changed it.”
But it’s just such statements that scientists find beyond frustrating.
“I get that everybody eats. But that does not make everyone an expert in agriculture systems,” says Alison Van Eenennaam, a UC Davis biotechnologist and a mom whose kids eat GMO foods. Van Eenennaam says she has sympathy for families desperately seeking causes and solutions for devastating conditions. But like the public arguments over vaccines and autism, the link between GMOs and illnesses is only a correlation, not a proven cause.
Asked if she would say that GMOs are safe, she sighs: “I don’t say that—2,000 studies globally say that. Independent researchers and industry studies say that. It is the scientific consensus of the entire world.” The American Medical Association is included in that consensus.
Her colleague at UC Davis, Pamela Ronald, a widely published professor of plant pathology, echoes Van Eenennaam in noting that the consensus comes from “precisely the same organizations that most of us trust when it comes to other important scientific issues such as global climate change and the safety of vaccines.”
GMOs have been used in food crops since 1996; in the United States, 95 percent of sugar beets, 94 percent of soy, 90 percent of corn and 90 percent of cotton are genetically engineered. The main reasons are to make the crops resistant to herbicides and to pests. Papayas in Hawaii have been genetically engineered against the ring spot virus. And late last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first genetically modified animal, the AquAdvantage salmon.
So if the food is safe, what’s the big deal?
For one, many people question the environmental consequences of the crops. For another, some people fear that allergens could be inadvertently transferred through genetic engineering. Then there’s the worry about consolidation of agriculture resulting from a small number of companies coming to own so many seed varieties. These concerns have led to a debate over whether labels should inform consumers of the presence of GMO ingredients in their food.
A GMO is an organism whose genome has been altered through genetic engineering, resulting in its DNA gaining one or two genes that are not normally there. For example, the agrochemical company Monsanto has engineered crop seeds that are resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the company’s herbicide Roundup. The farmers thus can spray weeds without harming their crops. Plants from these GMO seeds are often called “Roundup Ready.” But weeds are evolving to resist them as well, and that will mean new herbicides, says Patty Lovera, the assistant director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch.
The battle over the safety of GMOs spills over into the debate among international scientists about the safety of glyphosate, the poison in Roundup. It is worth mentioning because of its importance to GMO crops. Roundup is the most widely used pesticide in agriculture. In mid-2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, found glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The European Food Safety Authority disputed that conclusion, saying its own study showed that glyphosate “is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 was soundly criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for not monitoring the chemical’s residue on foods. Finally, in February, the FDA announced it would begin testing for glyphosate residue on foods sold in the United States, including soybeans, corn, milk and eggs, among others.
WHAT’S A FAMILY TO DO?
Most consumers are not scientists, and an Internet search for information about GMOs leads to a rabbit hole in which it takes a lot of work to figure out what to trust. For example, parents may wonder if there is any effect on their children from drinking milk from a dairy cow injected with a genetically engineered hormone to increase its milk production. There’s no question that our diets profoundly affect our health, but it’s often tough to pinpoint one factor that may have led to a problem.
Just ask Abigail Wald. Her young son developed a “terrifying” brain inflammation, and she went to work to discover why. The family turned to a gluten-free, organic diet, tracking, with hawklike attention, the source of every morsel. The boy underwent conventional testing and alternative treatments as unusual as lymph node massage, Wald says.
He’s 7 now and healthy, but who knows what part—if any—of the change in diet made the difference? It wasn’t easy for Wald, a lifelong foodie who describes her former approach to food this way: “It didn’t matter if it was Le Bernardin or the best food truck on the corner: I just loved food.”
A couple of years into their strict diet, she and her family started feeling ostracized because, for example, the child could not eat “the blue cupcakes” at a birthday party, and the family often had to bring their own food to make sure they had something to eat.
“Where was the fun in our lives?” she recalls. So she set out to “make something that’s so good, something they’re going to want and say yes to.” The result was a new career, as producer of the Yes Bar—and, yes, it contains no GMO ingredients.
As the Walds and others have found, it’s not impossible to avoid GMOs. Organic food, by definition, is not genetically engineered. Nor are wheat or most produce. The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit committed to building the non-GMO food supply and helping consumers make their food choices, certifies thousands of processed foods as GMO free. But Wald finds it “an affront” that such labels are not mandated in this country.
European Union nations are among more than five dozen countries—from Senegal and Saudi Arabia to Estonia and Ethiopia—that currently require GMO labeling on food packaging, but such labels have been voluntary in the United States.
And labels are complicated, too. Should labels say there are no GMO ingredients, or should they note their presence? Should products like fruit be labeled non-GMO even if there are no GMO versions (or vice versa)? (Remember the low-fat craze? In those days you could find grapefruit labeled “non-fat.”)
“The logical way to deal with this is to ask for that piece of information to make it through the chain” of production, says Lovera. “It’s simpler to label what does have it.”
Vermont has passed such a law; it takes effect July 1. Connecticut and Massachusetts passed laws that take effect when neighboring states pass similar laws. Ballot measures have failed in several states, including California, but efforts to get state laws continue.
There remains a push, from organizations such as Just Label It, for a single federal mandate, and most of the country seems to be in agreement. For example, a 2013 New York Times poll found that 93 percent of American consumers favor GMO labels on food products. Other polls had similar results: 96 percent in two news polls—from MSNBC in 2011 and Reuters/NPR in 2010—favor labeling.
But a federal mandate may not provide the options consumers seek. In a report from the research and advocacy organization the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Gregory Jaffe, director of the CSPI Biotechnology Project, writes, “Mandatory labels [outside the U.S.] have not given consumers a choice between cereal boxes with and without GE ingredients—just non-GE cereals that cost more to produce and are no safer.”
Those who oppose labeling ask why companies should mark their packages as containing ingredients grown in a perfectly legal and safe way.
For several reasons, labeling proponents say: First, it’s a difference not unlike juice labeled “made from concentrate.” Second, and more important, they say, it’s too soon to know all the possible effects. For example, could a cracker made from genetically engineered ingredients contain an allergen that otherwise might not be there?
CSPI advocates that Congress establish a formal pre-market approval process that might take longer than the current process but that would “result in greater assurance of safety and greater public confidence, around the world, in the safety of these widely consumed crops.”
Many food companies have responded to consumers’ demands with a voluntary “Non-GMO Project Verified” icon on the package. That nonprofit organization has certified tens of thousands of food products.
As in so much of life, there’s no silver bullet for agriculture. It’s not likely that farming will return to what it was many generations ago; genetic engineering is likely to be one of many ways plant breeders work, though getting some form of mandatory GMO food labeling in the United States is a possibility. And there are additional efforts afoot to make farming sustainable as well, including “agro-ecological” methods using cover crops and crop rotation that help reverse climate change and maximize production.
In the 2008 book Tomorrow’s Table, Pamela Ronald and her husband, organic farmer Raoul Adamchak, argue against an “either-or” approach to farming, saying that farmers instead need to use the practices that leave the smallest footprint on the planet.
Ronald notes that organic farmers don’t use herbicides, but they often till their fields, which she says releases greenhouse gases and harms the soil.
“When we started talking about this,” she says, “we realized the problem wasn’t so much the genetics, but a lack of information about farming in general.”
Elizabeth Kucinich, former director of policy at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., and executive producer of the documentary GMO OMG, cites the work of the Rodale Institute, the oldest organic research institute in America, to find new ways to sequester carbon in the soil and manage pests without trying to “control nature.”
“When farmers are looking at the way the natural world performs, they do much better,” she says.
Mary MacVean a Los Angeles–based writer who covers food, diet and health.
The ABCs of GMOs
GMO: genetically modified organism
GE: genetically engineered—another oft-used term meaning the same thing
GRAS: generally recognized as safe, a classification bestowed by the FDA for foods that it considers safe to eat without extensive pre-market testing; GMO foods currently fall into this category
Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium whose genes are spliced into some crops to kill pests that eat it, thus allowing less pesticide spraying
CSPI: the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which pushes for a more thorough testing and labeling process
glyphosate: the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide
Non-GMO Project: a nonprofit consumer group that offers voluntary certification for companies that want to label their foods as GMO-free