Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sustainability and GMOs: What You Need to Know

If you've been following sustainability news, you know that Vermont has passed a law requiring the labeling of food containing GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.  You may also know that there are attempts on the national front to block this law, which is due to be signed this week.

It has taken me a while to get my opinions together on this issue.  I've talked to some people who are very pro-labeling and anti-GMO, and I have talked to farmers and folks who have committed their lives to agriculture who are anti-labeling.  The results indicate that this issue, like almost all others in the world, is not black and white.  So, to give you a guided tour of my understanding of the grey areas, I wanted to share this FAQ that reflects the issue as I understand it.

What are GMOs?
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism."  It simply means that developers of a certain organism (plant or animal) have used scientific techniques to remove genes, introduce new ones, or tinker with the way genes are expressed as the organism develops.  Obviously, since it is easier to tinker with the simpler genetic profile of plants, we hear more about GMO plants than we do animals.  Examples of GMO plants include "golden rice," which has been developed to help with vitamin A deficiencies in parts of the world where people depend on rice as a food staple, and "Roundup Ready" corn in this country, which allows farmers to use the herbicide Roundup on their crop to kill weeds without harming the main crop of corn.

Have humans been creating GMOs for thousands of years?
Yes and no.  This is a popular argument among those who are pro-GMO, and it is correct to an extent.  Yes, human beings have been modifying plants and animals through selective cross-breading since the beginnings of agriculture and the start of animal domestication.  Modern corn and modern pet dogs are two examples of successful cross breeding of an organism to make it more suitable to human use. The difference is that the GMO organisms are created in the lab, which means that scientists have used their skill to tinker with the genetic profile of the organism.

Are GMOs dangerous?
In and of themselves, most GMOs probably aren't dangerous.  My concern with them is twofold: lack of natural controls and how the GMO is ultimately used.

First, GMOs don't have quite the same level of natural control over their development.  For example, look at one of the first natural crosses that everyone learns about:  cross a horse and a donkey, and you get a mule.  Mules aren't inherently dangerous (unless, I suppose, you get kicked by one), but they are sterile.  It isn't natural to cross breed a horse and a donkey, and so the offspring is created, but it can't reproduce.  That is not to say that all sterile hybrids are problematic, or that mules are, but that nature has a way of putting the brakes on cross breeding that is too far flung.  GMOs don't have these restrictions; theoretically, a scientist can put a piece of a gene from any other organism into the DNA of the target organism, and if it lives, it might be patented, marketed, and sold to the public.  This means that some crosses that could never happen in nature could theoretically happen in the lab, and this opens up the potential for both benefits and problems that we don't yet anticipate.

Second, and more troubling to me, is the use that GMOs are put to.  The most obvious example is the Roundup Ready line of crops from Monsanto.  These are crops, like corn, soy, and sugar beets, that were developed to tolerate levels of glyphosate that they could not otherwise.  This allows farmers to plant more of their intended crop per acre (in closer rows, for example) and then use Roundup instead of tilling or other mechanical means to control weeds.  The farmers get a higher yield per acre, but the consumer gets a product that is exposed to glyphosate, the chemical in Roundup.

But isn't Roundup OK?
The problem for me with glyphosate is cumulative exposure.  I'll go out on a limb here and say that if you eat a piece of corn that has been treated with Roundup, you aren't going to die from it.  But basically everything you eat is exposed to Roundup, unless you eat exclusively organics and food you grew yourself.  (And even then, try keeping Roundup off your garden when your neighbor wants his lawn to look like a golf course and the wind is blowing the wrong way.)

Roundup Ready corn, soy, and sugar beets are used to as sweeteners (HFCS, non-organic sugar), as flavor and texture enhancers, and as preservatives or shelf-stabilizing agents.  Cumulatively, if you eat a lot of processed food, you may be consuming multiple "OK" doses of Roundup throughout the day, and the science on this cumulative exposure is still a little sketchy for my taste.  Certainly, we all know that things that are OK in small doses can be harmful at high exposure levels, and that is my concern about GMOs -- that GMO is a proxy for knowing if the food is Roundup Ready and therefore has been exposed to glyphosate.

So are you pro- or anti-labeling?
I'm still on the fence.  On the one hand, I am very much in favor of food producers labeling when their product is GMO-free.  By definition, organic food is GMO-free, but I think of the GMO-free label as something similar to kosher, halal, or gluten-free -- just one more way that the consumer knows what they are purchasing and eating.  If you are a producer of a food without GMOs, get that label out there so we know when we are making purchase decisions!

The labeling laws would require food producers to affix a label if their products contain GMOs.  I would be agnostic on this, except the argument I have read from the agriculture community holds that they don't want to label GMOs because consumers would perceive it as a warning label.  And there's something in my head that keeps saying, "maybe if you think it looks like a warning label, then it is."

Right now, I'm supportive of efforts like that in Vermont because it means consumers are expressing what they want to know about their food.  If the agriculture community wants to demonstrate the safety of GMOs, then I suggest they break the issue down into smaller segments:  Is golden rice safe for consumption?  How about the Flavr-Savr tomato?  How about Roundup Ready corn?  What tests have been conducted to demonstrate this safety? If consumers want to know more about their food supply and agri-business has nothing to hide, then this should be an amiable discussion.

What do you think of GMO labeling laws?  Is this a factor for you when you shop?

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