GMOs: A Breakthrough or Breakdown in U.S. Agriculture?

Deciphering the debate on genetically-engineered food.

Deciphering the debate on genetically-engineered food
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Unless you're the rare individual who would choose Dippin' Dots over a scoop of vanilla, most people don't like to tinker with tradition—especially when it comes to their food.

So it's not surprising that the idea of genetically-engineered (GE) food strikes a lot of Americans as, well, sketchy. Whether that assessment is fair is another question. And the answer depends on whom you ask. To some, genetically modified foods portend environmental and health hazards; to others, they're a boon that could feed the world's growing population with needed nutrients and crops that withstand insects and pesticides. Either way, you're bound to hear plenty more on the subject, which has gained attention amid a swell of efforts calling for federal and state labeling of genetically-engineered foods. The latest of these came on Wednesday with the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and would require food manufacturers to label genetically engineered products accordingly.

[See 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]

Despite the defeat last fall of Proposition 37—a voter's referendum on GMO labeling in California—the passion and publicity surrounding the campaign has galvanized momentum on the issue. "There are now, depending on how you count it, 26 states that are taking up GE-labeling legislation," says Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy group running the "Just Label It" campaign, which is pressing Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to support legislation requiring manufacturers to label food with GE ingredients. "GE labeling has gone from a sleeper issue to an issue that is being discussed at the highest levels of government," he says.

Why? The unknown health and environmental effects of a technology that's only been in use 20 years, Faber says. "The science is still out."

Well, not exactly, according to Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group focused on public health and safety. "For the current crops that are genetically engineered, the evidence out there is very, very strong that those crops are safe to eat," says Jaffe, explaining that GMOs are predominantly found in processed foods such as high-fructose corn syrup or soy lecithin. "What people don't understand is that when you make soybean oil, or corn oil or sugar from sugar beets, you eliminate all of the DNA and all of the protein from that product," rendering the product made with GMOs "biologically and chemically identical" to one that wasn't, he says.

In any case, "labeling shouldn't be a surrogate for safety," Jaffe says, arguing instead for stronger FDA regulation. "Right now, there's just a voluntary consultation process."

[See Popular but Dangerous: 3 Vitamins That Can Hurt You.]

As to that process, FDA spokesperson Theresa Eisenman says this: "While the consultation process is voluntary, compliance with the law is not; it is the manufacturer's responsibility to ensure that the food products it offers for sale are safe and otherwise comply with applicable requirements. The goal of FDA's evaluation of information during the consultation process is to ensure that food safety issues or other regulatory issues are resolved prior to commercial distribution." More details are available on FDA's website.

Eisenman also notes that the agency "has not made a decision" regarding the petitions it has received for labeling genetically-engineered foods.

Such labeling would likely confuse consumers, cause them to avoid GE foods and hurt manufacturers that use the technology, says Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know." "It's no mystery that the presence of one of these labels is going to produce a negative reaction from consumers, whether it's justified or not," he says.