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Ringside With GMOs

Since the end of June, the status of GMO labeling has been gripped in a slow-moving (but now quickening) boxing match.

The adversaries: In the green corner, we have “the Labelers” – the roughly 90% of Americans (according to a poll conducted for ABCNEWS.com) who want clear, mandatory disclosure on foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In the dark corner, we have the two-headed Goliath of Big Ag and Big Food.

Before we get to the blow-by-blow account, a GMO introduction: According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetic modification is done to create certain traits like resistance to herbicides and certain plant diseases.

Genetically modified crops have been in commercial production since the 1990s. Because GMO crops have only been in our food supply for a short time, we do not yet know the health and environmental impacts of their use. According to the Just Label It Campaign, no one can credibly claim whether GMOs are or are not safe from a long-term perspective.

There are currently nine genetically engineered (GE) crops in the U.S. market: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini, and yellow crookneck squash. Three crops account for the vast majority of acres planted in GMOs around the world – corn, soybeans, and cotton.

While animals themselves are not (yet) genetically modified, the majority of American livestock has been fed genetically modified grains. The two most prevalent GE crops are corn and soy, which show up in most processed foods and animal feeds.

The food industry says that 75 to 80 percent of foods contain genetically modified ingredients – most of those are corn and soy-based.

Back at ringside, we find the bout already well underway. The opening bell in this fight sounded back in 2011 when several organic companies joined with the Center for Food Safety to file a petition with the FDA asking the agency to require mandatory GMO labels. Legislative moves that oppose transparent GMO labeling have been dubbed DARK Acts, as in, Denying Americans the Right to Know. For the past five years, the two opponents have been exchanging blows, with neither side showing ring generalship.

Among the criticisms of GMOs is the fact that they have led to increases in herbicide use, which poses human and environmental health threats. Around 85 percent of all GMO crops in the U.S. and the world have been engineered to survive heavy doses of herbicides, chief among them, glyphosate (widely sold under the brand name Roundup), thus enabling farmers to apply this herbicide liberally to their crops. A compounding factor is the rise of Roundup-resistant “superweeds,” which require more toxic herbicides to control.

Critics of GMOs are also concerned about potential risks to human health such as allergic reactions, cancer, and birth defects. However, there is not sufficient scientific data at this time to move the meter toward protecting health as a reason to label GMOs.

Those who oppose labeling say that labeling GMO-produced foods would falsely (they believe) imply that they are less safe or healthy than non-GMO foods and people would avoid buying such foods. GMOs have not been proven to pose a risk to human health. A long-awaited study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded from its meta-analysis that GMOs are safe to eat but are not solving world’s hunger problems. Some in the labeling camp find the study’s conclusions suspect due to its funding sources.

In recent action, a state labeling law went into effect in Vermont on July 1 of this year. This law required food manufacturers to include clear and easily read text on foods that have been produced, partially produced, or may be produced with GMOs. The law also decreed that manufacturers and retailers with private-label brands could be fined up to $1,000 per day per store per mislabeled SKU.

Congress countered with a sucker punch with its new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard that nullified the Vermont law. In late July, President Obama signed the bill into law. The new federal law gives companies three options for labeling – a text label, a symbol, or an electronic code, but does not mandate anything amounting to clear statement that certain foods are produced with genetic engineering.

Instead, this bill would allow manufacturers to offer a website, 800 number, or digital quick reference (QR) code on a label so shoppers could, if they had the time, willingness, and access, find out if that product contains GMOs. In addition, there are gaping loopholes that would allow some widespread GMO-derived ingredients not to require labeling, and there are no penalties for non-compliance. The Department of Agriculture has two years to write the rules for the new law.

Advocates of the new law wanted to avoid a state-by-state ticketwebpatchwork of labeling laws. Some prominent members of the food industry such as the Organic Trade association supported the final bill, calling it a “constructive solution to a complex issue.”

In early August, the democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut publicly called the federal law “fundamentally anti-consumer.” Senator Blumenthal plans to introduce a repeal bill in Congress, a move certain to face major roadblocks and opposition from Big Food and Big Ag.

For now, the labeling battle moves from the legislative phase to the regulatory and marketplace phase. Gary Hirshberg, a founder of the Just Label It coalition that advocates labeling, issued an open letter to food industry leaders. In his letter, Hirshberg called on company owners to join Campbell’s, Mars, and Dannon by publicly pledging to keep a simple GMO disclosure on food packages.

The GMO labeling brawl will continue everywhere food is sold. You can bet that the labelers are not throwing in the towel.

For the time being, those who wish to avoid GMOs should look for the certified organic label, which does not allow the use of genetically modified foods, or for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label.

by Zoe Brittain