Why Gene Editing Is the Next Food Revolution
A new technique has the potential to change the foods we eat every day, boosting flavor, disease resistance, and yields, and even tackling allergens like gluten—and scientists say they’re working only with nature’s own tools.
BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
TUCKED INTO A suburban Long Island neighborhood, a 12-acre plot may be growing the future.
Under a blistering July sun, Zachary Lippman bends over a row of foot-high plum tomato plants to reveal budding yellow flowers that will each produce a tomato and ripen over the summer. Out here, on the grounds of a former dairy farm, it has all the appearance of age-old tradition.
But inside a nearby lab, Lippman advanced the selective breeding process with a little nip and tuck of the plant’s own DNA, and now the “edited” plant is about to bear fruit in the field.
“There’s a long way to go, but what we have able to do in the last four or five years is unbelievable,” says Lippman, a professor of genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “It’s science fiction.”
He created the plants using gene editing, a technology—based on a natural process—that allows researchers to cut out certain bits of DNA in order to control traits. The cell’s genetic structure then repairs itself automatically, minus the targeted gene. His tomatoes are now programmed to produce double the number of branches and, as a result, twice the tomatoes.
The Promise of Gene Editing
In medicine, gene editing could potentially cure inherited diseases, such as some forms of heart disease and cancer and a rare disorder that causes vision loss. In agriculture, the technique can create plants that not only produce higher yields, like Lippman’s tomatoes, but also ones that are more nutritious and more impervious to drought and pests, traits that may help crops endure more extreme weather patterns predicted in the coming years.
Today hundreds of research and development labs are at work testing the potential of Crispr—the technique’s acronym—to solve a range of food-related concerns for both consumers and growers: reduced-gluten wheat that could be tolerated by those with sensitivities, a mushroom that doesn’t brown when bruised or cut, soybeans lower in unhealthy fats, and even protecting the global chocolate supply—candymaker Mars is behind an effort to bolster cacao’s ability to fight off a virus that’s devastating the crop in West Africa.
The first of these new gene-edited crops—canola—went on the market this year, with more coming in 2019. U.S. federal regulators say that because these plants do not contain foreign DNA—that is, DNA from viruses or bacteria, both used to create the first genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs—they don’t need the strict regulation and years of testing required for GMOs. On July 25, however, the European Union’s high court ruled for regulating gene-edited plants the same as GMOs.
Agricultural scientists have been improving plants through biotechnology for 25 years by transferring genes from one plant (or bacteria) species into another. These GMOs have allowed farmers to spray more herbicides without damaging their crops, or to create disease-resistant papayas in Hawaii, for example.
Even though science has not shown any human health effects of eating GMOs, they have been the target of consumer boycotts and tough government regulations throughout Europe and some U.S. states, spurred by distrust of the big corporations that create GMOs and the ramifications of mixing genes from two species.
But newer gene-editing tools such as Crispr (and there are others) achieve the same effects without transferring new genes from one organism to another. Gene editing is also simpler, cheaper, and faster than creating GMOs.
Because gene editing is relatively easy for those with proper training and basic lab facilities and not tightly controlled by a few companies, some experts say that it might allow developing nations to grow drought-free corn or nutrient-fortified vegetables without buying expensive seeds from large multinational firms. It’s also faster than growers methodically crossing generations of plant species to eventually get the desired trait—Crispr shaves years from that process.
‘An Ace Up Your Sleeve’
“This is about finding more efficient ways to improve crop productivity,” says Lippman, 45, who has been at the forefront of gene-editing research for the past decade.
For generations, commercial tomato breeders preferred fewer rather than too many branches, because the plant would fall under the weight of fruit or be unable to convert those extra flowers into fruits, compromising yields. “We had to find the sweet spot,” he says.
After years of studying different genes, researchers were able to fine-tune branching by lowering the activity of certain genes, as well as making tomatoes easier to pick by ensuring that the green cap stays attached to the plant rather than the fruit.
“We are still working with everything that nature has provided. With traditional breeding, whatever traits nature has kicked out of the DNA, that’s the hand you have been played,” Lippman says. “With gene editing, now you are playing poker with aces up your sleeve.”
‘It’s Like Speeding on the Highway’
Still, not everyone is convinced that gene editing is an improvement over traditional breeding methods. Gene editing makes permanent changes in a plant’s genome that are passed on through seeds. Others say Crispr practitioners benefit from biotechnology regulations that haven’t kept pace with developments.
“This is the new kind of genetic engineering, whether you call it transgenic [GMO] or not,” says Jaydee Hanson, an analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. “It should be adequately regulated. We’re not saying it should be stopped—we should know what has been done.”
Yet proposed federal labeling rules exclude foods that use Crispr and other gene-editing techniques from those requirements since the mutations haven’t introduced bits of the so-called foreign DNA.
Experts in the field suggest that the ultimate success of gene editing will not be decided by scientists, entrepreneurs, or activists, but by shoppers and farmers.
One researcher says he could produce a tastier tomato through gene editing by increasing flavor-enhancing lycopene, but he’s holding back.
“I don’t want to be the first, but I’d like to be the second,” says Harry Klee of the University of Florida. “It’s like speeding on the highway.”
Klee has a good market for his seeds of traditionally cross-bred tomato varieties; he’s hesitant to introduce Crispr-edited ones because of the wild card of public reception.
Evolving With the Times
A few miles outside Clark, South Dakota, Jason McHenry and his father run a 1,500-acre farm, growing wheat, corn, soybeans, and livestock. About 20 years ago, the McHenrys planted genetically-modified corn and soybeans that resist pests like nematode worms and weeds, allowing them to use fewer chemicals.
“It simplified life and helped us get ahead of the weeds,” says McHenry, 33, a third-generation farmer. It also saved the operation money and boosted production.
At the same time, he realizes that some consumers avoid GMOs, including his two sisters, who are raising families in the area. Soybeans have also been under pressure because soybean-based cooking oil is high in the trans fats that raise cholesterol levels and can contribute to heart disease. The FDA required food companies to remove them completely by June 2018.
But last year, at a meeting of South Dakota soybean producers, McHenry heard about a new kind of soybean plant that produces a healthier oil, high in oleic acid, found in olive oil and avocados.
State Officials Call For Roberts GMO Labeling Bill
Promoting agriculture in the public interest, including advocating for agricultural literacy and an understanding of where our food comes from, is a core component of my job as the chief agricultural official in my state. Over the past decade, some consumers have expressed growing interest in how their food is grown, and if it was produced from seeds set up by biotechnology to put their best roots forward. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is attempting to bring forward a common sense solution to consumers through the introduction of a national voluntary labeling system for bioengineered foods.
It may seem counter-intuitive for state officials to support a bill that preempts state law, but when it comes to America’s complex food system, state by state patchworks of biotechnology food labeling laws are chaotic for commerce, difficult to enforce and will deliver many unintended consequences. Mandatory, state-level rules on labeling of foods produced using biotechnology will decrease the diversity of foods on our shelves and the cost will ultimately be placed on the plate of families.
Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques. What a mandatory label won’t tell consumers is that foods and food crops produced using biotechnology are among the most reviewed, studied, scrutinized and regulated products in the world. Further regulation at the state level would be redundant and costly. My fellow commissioners, secretaries, and directors of agriculture, those who would likely oversee such state-level oversight of labeling practices, voted in favor of federal preemption on this issue at a meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) last month.
Biotech crops have been widely grown and safely consumed over the last two decades and more. If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up, and more land and resources will be needed to produce the same amount of food. Consumers who wish to choose GMO-free foods can already do so by selecting USDA-Certified Organic products, another highly regulated system. State-by-state mandatory on-package labeling will diminish consumer choices and increase costs for all consumers–hitting those who can least afford it the hardest. The Roberts bill approach will allow the market to determine and respond to the true desires of consumers as they vote with their dollars.
No one seems to challenge the extensive and growing use of genetic engineering in medicine and pharmaceuticals. Food and agriculture should not be asked to address present and future challenges of growing human populations, increasing climate and weather challenges to food production, and the rapid transit of pests and pathogens brought by global trade and travel, with 100 year-old tools and science.
Roberts’s bill is a common sense solution to an important national issue. I urge all members of the United States Senate to support it. A vote against this bill is a vote against the very farmers and ranchers who feed you, and against the working families who can least afford the costs of tracking and separating ingredients by the source of the seed.
Merrill is the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, a mother, grandmother, and lifelong dairy farmer. She is the vice chair of the Rural Development and Financial Security Committee of NASDA.
Editorial: No labels: Genetic paranoia comes to NH
Saturday, January 30, 2016
Seabrook Rep. Max Abramson helped organize a contest to find Massachusetts’s dumbest law, and repeal it.
But he’s also trying to create a new dumb law.
Abramson is sponsoring legislation to require food manufacturers to label genetically engineered foods, or ingredients known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).
We’ve been alternating the genetics of our food for millennia through selective breeding.
There is no evidence that genetic engineering represents any threat to public health. The campaign against the practice is fueled by unscientific paranoia.
Consumers who care about such things can find out what’s in their food more easily than ever before, allowing them to make informed choices.
While almost all processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, companies can market to customers looking for alternatives. Putting a GMO-free label on their product would be far more helpful to consumers than forcing every food maker in the county to place a scary “Produced with Genetic Engineering” label on their packaging.
Imposing such stringent labeling requirements in a small state like ours will limit choices to Massachusetts shoppers. It would be a costly and unnecessary regulation for big food companies, and a burden not worth tackling for smaller competitors. Many would simply chose not to distribute their produce in Massachusetts.
Abramson’s move to trim back Massachusetts’s outdated laws is a good idea. His effort to impose new labeling requirements based on Luddite fears is not.
Letter: Trust in GMOs
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Letter writer Bob Irving asks why not label GMOs so he can make his own choice (Monitor letters, Sept. 23). Here’s the problem: Labeling would raise the cost of food for everyone and provide no useful information.
The USDA, EPA and FDA have to approve GMO foods. They decided that labeling was not necessary because they only approve GMO food that is as safe as non-GMO food. It pays to listen to the experts in a field when making decisions about that field, and in the field of GMOs, the reputable scientists say labeling is not necessary.
Let’s spend our time and money on things that can make a difference. Labeling would just bring attention to something that the FDA says we do not need to worry about. The anti-GMO people want labeling because of the fear, uncertainty and doubt it will raise in the minds of the average consumer who is not paying attention to this issue. Some misguided people thought they knew more about vaccines than the medical establishment, and the results were outbreaks of long-vanquished diseases.
Let’s not make the same kind of mistake with GMOs by thinking we are smarter than the scientists at the USDA, EPA and FDA.
Labeling effort is confusing and misleading
Imagine you are driving home from work. You decide to stop at a local farm stand to pick up your first fresh-picked ears of sweet corn of the summer. You arrive with anticipation, thinking about the fresh corn. But your expression changes as you approach the display stand. The ears look fresh and inviting, but something else grabs your attention. A sign conspicuously placed over the corn reading “Genetically Engineered.”
This scene would become reality at Massachusetts farm stands and farmers’ markets if legislation currently before the Massachusetts House Environment and Agriculture Committee, mandating genetically modified foods be labeled, becomes law. Proponents tout it as “right to know,” pro-transparency legislation. As farmers, we ask how anything so confusing and misleading can be seen as informative and transparent.
We have serious concerns that our customers would take one look at the sign and make any number of false assumptions. One assumption might be the belief that it speaks for all of the produce in the stand. A customer might walk away without truly understanding the intended impact. More information does not necessarily mean more knowledge or provide greater transparency. This might be considered a “right to know,” but in reality it creates confusion about what you think you know.
When customers have questions about biotechnology, we encourage them to speak with us. We encourage this in many ways, including through signage. These discussions are invaluable. We can explain firsthand, and often do so in detail, about how biotechnology works, the effects on our farms and on our quality of life.
Biotechnology can be explained as a continuation and refinement of the plant breeding that has been part and parcel to agriculture since its beginnings. With conventional plant breeding, a whole slew of genes are transferred. Genes are responsible for desired traits as well as unwanted traits. Biotechnology enables the precise transfer of specific genes. In each process, the plant genomes are altered. The difference is the tools that are used. Evolution and adaptation are constantly occurring in nature; biotechnology only speeds up the process. In light of a changing climate, this will only be more important in the future.
We explain the benefits of biotechnology on our farming operations and the environment by the application of fewer chemicals, less fuel consumed and less time in the field. One local young farmer sees quality of life in biotechnology. He laments that his customers are not yet to the point of supporting his growing genetically modified sweet corn varieties. He estimates that if they were, he would have an additional 60 hours each summer to spend with his young family.
The Massachusetts Farm Bureau makes the following broader points about HB 660 and biotechnology in general:
Only the federal government has the expertise and resources to regulate biotechnology. A patchwork of state regulations would be unworkable and result in needless increases in the price of food for all of us.
The bill is not necessary. Voluntary labeling of biotechnology already exists. By 2018, the fastest growing grocery chain in the country, Whole Foods Market, will require all vendors label their products to indicate if they contain genetically modified ingredients. Walmart, the largest food retailer in the country, is reportedly weighing a similar requirement. Industry is already making it happen. Consumers wanting to avoid genetically modified foods can purchase certified organic foods.
Mandatory labeling is misleading as it implies a health or safety issue. In the nearly 20 years since genetically modified foods have been a part of our food supply, not a single verified case of illness has been attributed to biotechnology. The Food and Drug Administration has continually upheld its safety, and last summer the American Medical Association reaffirmed its position that FDA’s “science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling.”
Claims that genes do not cross the species barrier in nature are false. Plant geneticists tell us tell us it happens in nature and is done by conventional breeders all the time.
Farmers must have access to the best technology to manage limited natural resources and increase productivity. Our success depends on public policies that are guided by science and that encourage the development and acceptance of innovative agricultural practices and solutions. As public policy, HB 660 fails this test.
(Robert Johnson is policy director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation in Concord.)
GMO panic is bad policy
America’s foremost nutritional problem may well be the sheer quantity of food it consumes, but the nation is increasingly haunted by a much more arcane question about its diet: Did someone at some point tinker with its DNA?
The fear of consuming genetically modified organisms – “GMOs” to their enemies – is largely detached from science and reason. It has nonetheless become pervasive in certain generally left-leaning circles, so much so that three New England states have moved to require disclosure of genetically modified ingredients. Similar measures have been introduced in many other states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
But the U.S. House recently responded with the legislative equivalent of a genetically altered tomato hurled in the activists’ direction, passing a bill to outlaw labeling mandates.
The anti-GMO movement has a superficially appealing argument: Food manufacturers already have to disclose ingredients, caloric content, and more. So even if the dangers of genetic modification are an article of faith rather than fact, why not disclose it and let the people decide?
The trouble is that unlike the rest of the information the federal government requires labels to include, genetic modification is not an ingredient or a nutrient, but a technology – a means rather than an end. Requiring food makers to tell us whether the corn they used was genetically manipulated is like forcing them to disclose whether it was cultivated in the presence of a scarecrow. Sure, plenty of people might find this information interesting, but it has no demonstrable relationship to anyone’s health.
And no one, by the way, is or should be preventing voluntary labeling of foods as GMO-free. Indeed, with corporations such as Whole Foods and Chipotle pandering to unfounded anxieties, anyone who is determined to avoid genetically modified foods should have no trouble doing so.
But government-mandated labeling would wrongly elevate the issue by suggesting that genetic modification has proven health implications. That’s why the Senate should join the House in acting to head off such labeling requirements.
While the techniques have grown much more sophisticated with scientific advances, the fact is that genetic manipulation has long made most of what we know as agriculture possible. And its modern uses are so varied as to make generalizations inherently misleading. Genetically altered crops are often criticized as facilitating herbicide use, for example, but they can just as easily obviate the need for pesticides.
Nor is there any shortage of work left to do on scientifically sound labeling. Consider, for example, how much prepared food is sold and served without so much as a calorie count attached – a fact with unimpeachable relevance to a nation of overeaters. Governments and corporations intent on improving public health should focus on providing useful information instead of legitimizing misinformation.
CONGRESS CREATED MANDATORY nationwide food labels, and it is Congress that has a responsibility to ensure they don’t stray from their original purpose of providing valid health and safety information to consumers. With that goal in mind, the Senate should approve controversial legislation that would prevent states from requiring food makers to add misleading and superfluous data to labels.
The legislation comes as a response to states like Vermont and Maine that have required food makers to disclose whether ingredients come from genetically modified food. “Genetically modified” is a slippery term — virtually all crops have been genetically modified by humans over the last 10,000 years — but has become a fashionable concern among some consumers.
Unlike calorie counts or allergen warnings, though, whether or not a food has come from a genetically modified source has no relationship to its health or safety. States that have mandated its inclusion next to legitimate health information are piggybacking on the credibility of food labels to imply that genetically modified foods are also a health or nutrition factor — which study after study has shown is not the case.
Other critics of genetically modified foods admit they’re safe to eat, but fall back on a political argument to justify the mandatory labeling laws. They say it’s really about the economics, and that consumers want to know whether their food comes from the big corporations that develop and profit from genetically modified seeds.
But that’s an even more pernicious reason to mandate labeling, one that would inappropriately redefine the purpose of food-labeling laws. Just because some consumers may have a political or superstitious interest in some bit of information about food has never meant that it would get the official sanction that comes with inclusion in labeling law. For instance, the government doesn’t require produce companies to say whether their berries were picked by Democrats or Republicans, or whether they were packaged by a Capricorn. Yes, it’s just information, and companies can provide it voluntarily if they wish, but requiring it would open a Pandora’s box.
States that have tried to add content about genetically modified ingredients to food labels are undermining the credibility of the labeling system, which consumers will ignore if they lose trust that it’s based on science. Indeed, the labeling legislation is the rare issue where the scientific community has aligned with Republicans, who’ve led the effort to preempt the state laws. The House has passed its version of the legislation to safeguard the integrity of food labeling laws, and the Senate should follow suit. Republicans have a great chance to disprove critics who’ve long accused them of anti-scientific bias, and they should take it.
Many of my friends praise Whole Foods Market but add, “Their prices are high.” Many market factors drive those prices. For instance, selling diverse and extremely fresh produce, particularly seafood, is expensive.
The prices at Whole Foods also tend to be more expensive than prices at other grocery stores because Whole Foods offers products to consumers who are willing to pay more for local and organic food as well as for food that is free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Given the difficulty of tracking food and identifying which ingredients include GMOs and which do not, Whole Foods cannot fully meet its own GMO goals until 2018.
But 2018 is not fast enough for state Reps. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) and Todd Smola (R-Warren), who introduced H. 3242, which would mandate GMO labeling of most foods, beverages, and animal feed sold in Massachusetts by 2017. Their bill relies on tired scare tactics, not sound science.
When addressing similar initiatives, an opinion writer in The New York Times aptly declared, “Nearly every respected scientific association — including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Medical Association and American Society of Plant Biologists — has attested to the safety of GMO crops for one simple reason: scientific evidence indicates that the consumption of genetically modified crops is not harmful or nutritionally inferior.”
However, one cannot persuade anti-GMO advocates with science because, like the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, in the absence of data showing any harm from GMOs, they rely on an ideology in an almost religious way; their faith cannot be shaken no matter how often science proves them wrong.
Vermont, which specializes in early adoption of bad ideas, is the only state that requires GMO labeling, and its law does not take effect until next year; two other New England states have passed laws conditioned on neighboring states passing similar bills. If Massachusetts follows Vermont, it will generate a cascade of problems, including problems for key constituencies of the bill’s sponsors.
Zealots argue that there are no costs associated with these regulatory burdens, but, if GMO labelling were easy and cheap, Whole Foods could complete the task before 2018. If the Story-Smola bill passes, prices for steak, tofu, arugula and Doritos will increase. Pet food prices will increase. The price of a six-pack will increase. More importantly for some consumers, many national suppliers of food, beverages and pet food will withdraw products from the Massachusetts market just as auto insurance companies did when Massachusetts adopted uniquely burdensome regulatory rules.
True environmentalists should worry about this legislation because its regulatory burdens would break fragile Massachusetts farms serving consumers who want “locavore” (locally grown) food. When these farms can no longer make their small profits, the land that once provided food for our tables will almost surely be gobbled up by urban sprawl.
Congress assigned responsibility for food labeling to the Food and Drug Administration, which trumps inconsistent state laws. While lawyers litigate, our farmers, brewers, bakers and others should not be stampeded into gathering volumes of highly technical information that is difficult—if not impossible—to compile. The free market is working just fine as it is — those who insist on paying more for food that fits their ideology can buy it. Why force the vast majority of consumers to shop for food as if the only option were a Cambridge Whole Foods?
If resources are available at the Department of Public Health to enforce this legislation, then most of us would agree they would be better spent reducing opiate addiction or educating the public about actual health risks, such as obesity, smoking or dangerous sexual behavior. Enforcing a right to GMO-free cat food for aspiring YouTube stars would be a sad statement of our priorities.
Michael Astrue is a former commissioner of Social Security and a former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Talk back at email@example.com.
Despite myriad assurances from scientists that foods containing genetically modified ingredients are safe to eat, consumers are likely to see more and more products labeled “G.M.O.-free” in the not-too-distant future. As happened with the explosion of gluten-free products, food companies are quick to cash in on what they believe consumers want regardless of whether it is scientifically justified.
Responding to consumer concerns about genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s, in foods, as well as individual company and state actions on G.M.O. labeling, the Department of Agriculture last month announced a voluntary certification program that food companies would pay for to have their products labeled G.M.O.-free.
By the end of the month, Abbott, the maker of Similac Advance, began selling a G.M.O.-free version of the nation’s leading commercial baby formula (it already has such a product, sold as Similac Organic) to give consumers “peace of mind”.
In April, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it would start preparing foods with no G.M.O.s, although the restaurant will not be free of such ingredients.
Last year, Vermont passed a law requiring the labeling of foods that contain G.M.O.s (Connecticut and Maine have labeling laws that will go into effect only when surrounding states also pass them). And Whole Foods Market, with 410 stores in 42 states, Canada and Britain, announced that it would require all foods they sell with G.M.O.s to be so labeled by 2018.
G.M.O. labeling is already required in 64 countries, including those of the European Union; Russia; Japan; China; Australia; Brazil; and a number of countries in Africa, where despite rampant food scarcity and malnutrition, American exports that could save millions of lives have been rejected because the crops contained G.M.O.s.
However, a review of the pros and cons of G.M.O.s strongly suggests that the issue reflects a poor public understanding of the science behind them, along with a rebellion against the dominance of food and agricultural conglomerates. The anti-G.M.O. movement, I’m afraid, risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What is needed is a dispassionate look at what G.M.O.s mean and their actual and potential good, not just a fear of harmful possibilities.
Let’s start with the facts. Humans have been genetically modifying food and feed plants and animals for millenniums, until recently only by repeatedly crossing existing ones with relatives that have more desirable characteristics. It can take many years, even decades, to achieve a commercially viable product this way because unwanted traits can come in the resulting hybrids. While it may be nice to have a tomato that can withstand long-distance travel, the fruit also has to ripen evenly and, most important, taste good.
Genetic engineering makes it possible to achieve a desired outcome in one generation. It introduces only a single known gene or small group of genes that dictate production of desired proteins into a plant, imparting characteristics such as tolerance of frost, drought or salt, or resistance to disease or weed killer. The technique can also be used to enhance a plant’s growth or content of an essential nutrient, or, in the case of animals, reduce the feed they need.
Thus, Golden Rice, genetically enhanced to be rich in beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, can counter blindness in rice-dependent populations; another gene inserted into rice increases its iron content to fight iron-deficiency anemia; a gene from ocean poutspeeds the growth of farmed salmon, reducing its dependence on wild fish feed; and a bacterial gene inserted into the DNA of cornenables it to better withstand drought.
The often-voiced concern that introducing genes from different species is unnatural and potentially dangerous ignores the fact that all living organisms, including humans, share thousands, even millions of genes with other species (we share 84 percent of our genes with dogs!).
As for safety, every G.M.O. must be evaluated and approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency before it can be marketed. Developers must test the product for toxicity and allergenicity as well as assure that its nutrient content is at least as good as its non-G.M.O. counterpart.
Yes, this depends on the developer’s honesty, but note: There is no such testing required for traditionally bred foods, any number of which are known to cause life-threatening reactions in some people.Many popular non-G.M.O. foods, including broccoli, mushrooms and carrots, contain natural toxins, though the foods are not harmful to people when consumed in normal amounts. Kiwis, with hundreds of novel proteins, many of which have allergic potential, were never tested for allergenicity before they were marketed.
Peanuts, shellfish, celery and strawberries have not been banned despite some people being allergic to them. It may even be possible to use genetic engineering to get rid of the allergenic proteins in such foods.
Other actual and potential applications of the technique include using bacteria outfitted with the human insulin gene to produce insulin to treat diabetes; using a yeast with a gene for chymosin from the stomach lining of calves to churn out a vegetarian version of the enzyme needed to produce cheese; and employing various genetically modified organisms to produce vast quantities of vaccines, antibodies or drugs rapidly and inexpensively.
Safety testing of G.M.O.s often goes beyond their intended use. In an effort to enrich soybeans used for animal feed with the amino acid methionine, a gene from Brazil nuts was used. But when testing showed that people allergic to Brazil nuts produced antibodies to the protein in engineered soybeans, research on the modified beans was abandoned.
A legitimate safety concern involves possible delayed deleterious effects of genetically modified products on consumers, the environment or the “balance” of nature. As with an organism’s natural genes, introduced ones can mutate or disrupt the function of neighboring genes. Thus, continued monitoring of their effects is essential and, as with defective cars, malfunctioning products may have to be recalled.
Are there risks to G.M.O.s that scientists have yet to consider or discover? Of course there are. Nothing in this life is risk-free, but that is not enough reason to reject valuable scientific advances.
Another objection to G.M.O.s, however, could jeopardize the government’s ability to certify products as G.M.O.-free: G.M.O. seeds can sometimes escape where they’re grown and contaminate fields of non-G.M.O. crops, and scores of minor ingredients in food products, like cornstarch, may be derived from a G.M.O. crop. While there are no guarantees, the best way for concerned consumers to avoid G.M.O. products is to choose those certified as organic, which the U.S.D.A. requires to be G.M.O.-free.
WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department has developed a new government certification and labeling for foods that are free of genetically modified ingredients.
The USDA’s move comes as consumer groups push for mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Several states, including Vermont, are moving to require labeling of food containing GMOs in the face of industry opposition.
The federal certification is the first of its kind and would be voluntary — and companies would have to pay for it. If approved, the foods would be able to carry a “USDA Process Verified” label along with a statement that they are free of GMOs.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the department’s plan in a May 1 letter to employees, saying the certification was being done at the request of a “leading global company,” which he did not identify. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press.
Right now, there are no government labels that only certify a food as GMO-free. Many companies use a private label developed by a nonprofit called the Non-GMO Project. The USDA organic label also certifies that foods are free of genetically modified ingredients, but many non-GMO foods aren’t organic.
Vilsack said the USDA certification is being created through the department’s Agriculture Marketing Service, which works with interested companies to certify the accuracy of the claims they are making on food packages — think “humanely raised” or “no antibiotics ever.” Companies pay the Agricultural Marketing Service to verify a claim, and if approved, they can market the foods with the USDA process verified label.
“Recently, a leading global company asked AMS to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such,” Vilsack wrote in the letter. “AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.”
A USDA spokesman confirmed that Vilsack sent the letter but declined to comment on the certification program. Vilsack said in the letter that the certification “will be announced soon, and other companies are already lining up to take advantage of this service.”
Genetically modified foods come from seeds that are originally engineered in laboratories to have certain traits, like resistance to herbicides. The majority of the country’s corn and soybean crop is now genetically modified, with much of that going to animal feed. GMO corn and soybeans are also made into common processed food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.
The government says GMOs on the market now are safe and that mandatory labels aren’t needed. Consumer advocates pushing for mandatory labeling say shoppers still have a right to know what is in their food, arguing that not enough is known about the effects of the technology. They have supported several state efforts to require labeling, with the eventual goal of having a federal standard.
The USDA label is similar to what is proposed in a GOP House bill introduced earlier this year that is designed to block those mandatory GMO labeling efforts around the country. The bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., provides for USDA certification but would not make it mandatory. The bill also would override any state laws that require the labeling.
The food industry, which backs Pompeo’s bill, has strongly opposed individual state efforts to require labeling, saying labels would be misleading because GMOs are safe.
Vermont became the first state to require the labeling in 2014, and that law will go into effect next year if it survives a legal challenge from the food industry.
A spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the major food industry trade group that challenged the Vermont law, said, “We are interested in this development and look forward to engaging with the department” on the labels.
Pass any Chipotle these days — and it is my gastronomic preference to pass rather than enter — and you will see signs claiming credit for removing ingredients that contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from the menu. It is the first big chain to do so, and probably not the last. The business press has pronounced it “a savvy move to impress millennials” and a “bet on the younger generations in America.”
This milestone in the history of fast-food scruples (and of advertising) is also a noteworthy cultural development: the systematic incorporation of anti-scientific attitudes into corporate branding strategies. There is no credible evidence that ingesting a plant that has been swiftly genetically modified in a lab has a different health outcome than ingesting a plant that has been slowly genetically modified through selective breeding. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat. This scientific consensus is at least as strong as the one on human-caused climate change.
Yet Whole Foods promises “full GMO transparency” by 2018. Its Web site emphasizes “your right to know.” But you will search the site in vain for any explanation of how or why GMOs are harmful, because an actual assertion would not withstand scrutiny. Evidently your right to know does not include serious scientific arguments. Chipotle co-chief executive Steve Ells set out his rationale this way: “They say these ingredients are safe, but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.”
“They” say. “We” know. It brought to mind an argument made by Dan Kahanof Yale in the journal Nature concerning global warming. If you are, say, a Republican in the Deep South, your capacity to confront global climate disruption directly is vanishingly small (assuming that you think it is a problem). And the cost of bucking your neighbors on the issue may be considerable. They are likely to view you as an oddity or a turncoat, and to question your judgment on other matters. So the decision to conform to the views of your cultural group or team, while not heroic, is not irrational. (The same argument could be made about the team composed of enlightened corporate chief executives.)
“The trouble starts,” says Kahan, “when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them.’ ” This use of scientific opinion as a cultural signifier is evident in the vaccination debate. A certain kind of trendy parent believes that everything natural is preferable, forgetting that natural levels of mortality from childhood diseases are high. It is the same ideological impulse — the belief that nature is pure and artifice is unwholesome — that causes corporate leaders to spout pseudoscientific nonsense about GMOs, while employing the issue as a cultural marker.
Although it may be rational for people to conform to the views of their team, the problem comes when those individual decisions are tallied up. As opinions on climate have become a cultural identifier, the prospects of legislative action on the issue have faded. When it comes to vaccines, herd ideology can disrupt herd immunity, leaving kids with dangerous and preventable diseases.
What is being lost as GMOs become a trendy identifier? Directly, probably not much. Genetically altered plants — which resist drought and disease, control pests without the spraying and runoff of chemicals, allow no-till farming, prevent soil erosion and limit greenhouse gas emissions — are too wildly popular with farmers to be stigmatized out of existence. About 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are GMOs.
But Chipotle, Whole Foods and those who follow their examples are doing real social harm. They are polluting public discourse on scientific matters. They are legitimizing an approach to science that elevates Internet medical diagnosis, social media technological consensus and discredited studies in obscure journals. They are contributing to a political atmosphere in which people pick their scientific views to fit their ideologies, predispositions and obsessions. And they are undermining public trust in legitimate scientific authority, which undermines the possibility of rational public policy on a range of issues.
Whatever the intention of those involved, embracing pseudoscience as the centerpiece of an advertising and branding effort is an act of corporate irresponsibility.
Read more from Michael Gerson’s archive, follow him on Twitter orsubscribe to his updates on Facebook .
As a career educator, when I hear questions about “genetically engineered” plants (GMOs), I recognize how complex the issues are — and how difficult it is to sort out what our concerns should be.
One is labeling. We can go to the grocery store, and increasingly to restaurants, and find information about the nutritional content (or lack thereof!) in the food we buy. This information includes specific quantities of carbohydrates (sugars, starches and fiber), fats (oils), protein, vitamins, minerals, calories and serving sizes, as well as other information (e.g. additive content) as regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
People are calling for information about whether a product contains ingredients derived from a GMO. Will that label really provide information important to us as consumers and citizens?
There are at least two major reasons to want the “GMO” label. One reason is to enable individuals to make the choice to avoid buying products they feel support the crop monoculture and seed monopolies considered to be corporate-controlled agriculture. This “Big Ag” can be viewed as the driver of a variety of social and economic ills, although where blame lies is tied up in the agricultural economics of farm subsidies, world trade, food supply and other complex issues.
From this perspective, choosing not to purchase GMO-containing foods as the “socially responsible” choice would be similar to why many of us try to avoid buying products from any company we presume exploits its employees, damages the environment, or otherwise counters values we may view as critical to human health and the future of our planet.
However, if this is a major motivation, the GMO label alone does not serve the purpose, as corporate agriculture produces much more than the corn and soybeans that are the primary GMO crops in our food chain today. (There are minor amounts of GMO alfalfa used as hay, and sugar beets produced for sugar). Contrary to what many think, no wheat, rice, potatoes, peanuts, fruits (with the exception of Hawaiian papayas), or other major component of our diet comes directly from GMO plants.
Thus, foods with the GMO label would identify only a part of “Big Ag” products. It is difficult to know if avoiding such products would limit the reach of “Big Ag” without also damaging other sectors of the farm economy.
Of course, another major reason to want the GMO label relates to health. Although major medical and science groups, includes virtually all of the oldest and most respected scientific organizations in the world, have deemed current GMOs safe, doubt remains.
Here it becomes important to consider what makes a GMO a GMO. Take GMO soybeans. Soybeans have been engineered to have a tolerance to herbicides, one being the infamous “Roundup” produced by Monsanto.
What change was needed to make soybeans herbicide resistant? It involved modification of a single protein, one already found in plants, and one that you have eaten every time you have eaten a plant. We know proteins are important in our daily diets, but perhaps do not know that proteins are made from strings of amino acids. To make a soybean plant resistant to Roundup, scientists changed two out of the approximately 500 amino acids of one protein (called “EPSP synthase”) found in all plants so that it could still do its job for the plant, even in the face of Roundup.
Soybeans and other plants contain thousands of proteins, and therefore hundreds of thousands of amino acids. Changing only two amino acids was required to make an herbicide-resistant plant. This is amazing — that such a small change can have this effect. The compositional difference between a GMO soybean and a non-GMO soybean is so tiny that there are more differences among different varieties of soybeans than between a GMO soybean and its non-GMO parent.
In terms of labeling, the GMO content of the GMO soybean is this one protein. Because there are so many proteins in soybeans and other plants, the GMO protein comprises less than 1 percent of all the protein in the soybean. So if you eat pure soybean protein, it is very likely that much less than 1 percent of what you are eating is a genetically modified protein.
What if you buy soybean oil from a GMO plant or something made with soybean oil? If you read the current label on any soybean oil and look for the amount of protein, you will find the number “zero”. Oils produced from plants do not contain protein, or contain so little, it is not even measurable. This means that foods containing soybean oil (or for that matter corn oil) do not contain any GMO ingredients.
Do we need to avoid high fructose corn syrup from GMO corn? The nutritional label on corn syrup will also say zero protein. We may want to avoid high fructose corn syrup for lots of reasons, but it won’t contain GMO protein. If the health effects come from the genetic modification, which is the introduced protein, then the label should specify how much of the genetically modified protein is present, just as labels now specify how much protein, carbohydrate, oil, or additives are present in food. Should soybean oil be labeled GMO if it actually contains none of the GMO ingredient? Should products made with corn oil or high fructose corn syrup be labeled GMO when they contain none of the GMO ingredient?
The US House of Representatives has passed the industry-backed voluntary GMO labeling bill – The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act 2015 – by 275 votes to 150, and rejected all four amendments it was asked to consider.
– which anti-GMO activists have dubbed the DARK Act (‘Denying Americans the Right-to-Know’) – would pre-empt state laws that mandate GMO labeling (such as Act 120 in Vermont) and set up a federal voluntary ‘non-GMO’ labeling system run by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Under the proposed federal legislation, which was introduced by Mike Pompeo (R-KS), firms would also be allowed to make ‘natural’ claims on foods made with ingredients from genetically engineered (GE) crops – which supporters hope will stop civil litigation over this issue from clogging up the court system.
Labeling of a food made with GE ingredients would only be required if two conditions are met:
1. There is “a meaningful difference in the functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics, allergenicity, or other attributes between the food so produced and its comparable food”;
2. The labeling is “necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label or labeling of the food so produced from being false or misleading”.
Meanwhile, food manufacturers will be permitted to claim that a food is non-GMO if the ingredients are subject to certain supply chain process controls, and cannot state or imply that non-GMO foods are safer than GMO foods.
All six witnesses at Tuesday’s House Committee on Agriculture hearing argued against mandatory biotechnology labeling laws. Most of their testimony praised the efficiency they believe GE crops provide to farmers and enumerated the costs they say labeling would inflict on farmers, manufacturers and consumers.
But they also brought up the safety concerns surrounding GE food.
“Every major health and regulatory organization has found that GMOs are as safe as any other food and as such do not require any special labeling,” said Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes. “This is what our own FDA has concluded and is further supported by a 2011 summary report from the European Commission covering a decade of publicly funded research, 130 research projects and 50 research groups, which concluded there is no scientific evidence of higher risks from GE crops.”
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of the general public say GE foods are safe, while 88 percent of scientists say they are.
Nina Fedoroff, senior science advisor for OFW Law, who previously served as the Science and Technology Adviser to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, told the committee that most American consumers believe GE foods are unsafe because of “increasingly strident efforts of determined anti-GMO activists to convince the public that GMOs are bad.”
Adding a GE label to food won’t actually help consumers make meaningful distinctions about safety because “GM foods on the market today are as safe as, and nutritionally equivalent to, their non-GM counterparts,” Fedoroff said.
“There is no food safety or nutritional difference that requires an additional label,” said Thomas Dempsey, Snack Food Association president and CEO. “Going down a path which calls for mandatory GMO labels sets a bad precedent for future calls for mandatory labels for issues that are not related to food safety or nutrition.”
But labeling proponents pointed to last week’s decision by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” as evidence that GE crops can negatively impact human health.
“Glyphosate is used mostly on genetically engineered corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets, but it is also used by everyday gardeners on their lawns,” said Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The widespread adoption of GMO crops have led to an explosion in the use of a probable carcinogen,” Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at Environmental Working Group, told Food Safety News.
And when the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to approve new types of apples that have been genetically engineered not to brown as quickly after being cut, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) noted that the alteration could lead to an increased health risk.
“Pre-sliced apples are a frequently recalled food product,” CFS stated. “Once the whole fruit is sliced, it has an increased risk of exposure to pathogens. Since browning is a sign that apples are no longer fresh, ‘masking’ this natural signal could lead people to consume contaminated apples.”
Last year, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act to give FDA the sole authority for mandatory labeling of GE foods and to prohibit voters from proposing initiatives for labeling GE food at the state level. The bill, dubbed by critics as the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know” (or DARK) Act, was reintroduced in Congress on Wednesday.
In February, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR)reintroduced legislation to require FDA to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
FDA currently supports voluntary labeling in which food manufacturers indicate whether their products have or have not been developed through genetic engineering “provided such labeling is truthful and not misleading.”
Genetically modified food isn’t new. Since farming began, humans have been breeding food — in other words, changing the genetics — for beneficial traits and better crops. The practice has moved from the field to the lab, as scientists can now transplant genes from species to species.
Labels may limit consumer choice: Despite the lack of proof that such crops endanger anyone, retailers may choose not to stock certain foods. And mostly, politics shouldn’t trump science.
89% Of Scientists Believe Genetically Modified Foods Are Safe
A Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29, contains a blockbuster: In sharp contrast to public skepticism about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.
That overwhelming consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who believe global warming is the result of human activity. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on climate change.
Some 57 percent of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don’t understand the science behind GMOs. Scientists blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.
The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a marginal pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”
A huge literacy gap between scientists and the public on biotechnology is one of the many disturbing nuggets that emerged from the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted in cooperation with the AAAS, the world’s largest independent general scientific society. The full study, released on January 29, is available here.
This survey, the first of several reports to be released in coming months, compares the views of scientists and the general public on the role of science in the United States and globally.
The eye opening take-away: The American population in general borders on scientific illiteracy. The gap between what scientists believe, grounded on empirical evidence, often sharply differs from what the general public thinks is true. The differences are sharpest over biomedical research, including GMOs.
- 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while only 37% of the public believes that’s true—a 51-percentage point gap
- 68% of scientists say it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared with 28% of citizens—a 40% gap.
- A 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research—89% of scientists favor it, while only 47% of the public backs the idea.
Editorial: The case for genetically modified food
by Chicago Tribune
Some varieties of genetically modified corn require less pesticide to thrive
Vermont recently joined two other New England states and passed a law to require labels on food that contains genetically modifed ingredients. Similar labeling laws have been proposed in two dozen other states, including Illinois. A push is on for a federal labeling requirement.
We favor giving consumers as much information as possible about the products they buy and consume. We wonder, though, if the state-by-state push for mandatory labeling of genetically modified food will do more to frighten people than to inform them.
Ample research and decades of experience have shown that genetically modified crop technology is safe. People have been consuming genetically modified food for years. The vast majority of Midwest corn and soybeans used for animal feed and many pantry staples is genetically modified.
Moreover, this technology represents an astonishingly effective way to increase the food supply — to feed a rapidly expanding global population.
There is vast potential: crops with enhanced nutrition, crops that grow in droughts, crops that enable subsistence farmers to deal with conditions that thwart conventional crops. Those innovations are well within reach.
Labeling should inform the public, not prompt alarm. It’s better to do this at the national rather than local level. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration permits food manufacturers to indicate through voluntary labeling if foods have not been developed through genetic engineering. The agency requires the labels to be truthful but otherwise has no formal requirements.
If people don’t want to consume genetically modified food, they have a ready option: Buy organic. The Agriculture Department requires that foods labeled 100 percent organic contain no GM ingredients.
It’s not a question of when you’re going to ingest genetically modified. Chances are, you — hold tight, don’t panic, everything’s going to be OK — already are.
GMO labeling: One Seacoast mom’s practical pro-choice perspective
As a mother of three small children, I am concerned about good nutrition and a healthy diet. I like to buy locally grown produce and organic foods whenever I can, even though this type of shopping is not always the most convenient or economical.
I appreciate the fact that as demand grows, it’s becoming easier to find organic and non-GMO products at my local supermarket. But while I support and purchase some organic and non-GMO products I still bristle at the impracticality of imposing a law that requires all products made with GMOs to be labeled as such. Products that don’t use GMOs already proudly proclaim that fact on their packaging, as do the certified organic products.
Should a GMO labeling law pass, mandating all products from private label rice to brand name breakfast cereals be labeled differently, manufacturers would need to design and print new packages at a cost they would pass along to the consumer in the form of price increases. Some manufacturers might stop selling in our state altogether, limiting our choices and hurting Massachusetts businesses as people head out-of-state to buy the products that were once available at the local Market Basket.
Furthermore, who is going to pay to inspect to make sure all of these products are properly labeled as GMO? I don’t think the state has enough funds in the budget to take on such a huge responsibility without increasing taxes more. And what happens to those that don’t comply? Will they be fined and make the changes? Or will they simply stop selling in our state? What happens when costs go up but our income cannot keep up? What does this mean for our state economically? Does state spending on an unnecessary labeling process take priority over education, social programs or upkeep of our bridges and roads?
To me, it seems far more efficient to focus on the positive and support the current process of labeling our GMO-free and organic products. This method has worked very well for Whole Foods: they have grown like crazy over the last decade. Maybe we can even save some money to help local businesses and encourage growth that will ultimately create more choices for us in the future.
Some of my good friends are very passionate and emotional about this issue, but I wonder if all the factors and implications of such a massive undertaking are being considered when they read a blog post or a Facebook update. The current process seems to be working quite well for both consumers and producers that offer GMO-free products — a process that represents natural, free market evolution.
With our economy still weak, I think any decision that adds cost and increases risks to our economy should be avoided. In this state especially, we are proud to make our own choices and across the board mandates such as a new labeling law seems both very impractical idea and an insult to our collective intelligence.
The Science of GMOs: Possibilities And Limitations
By The Exchange • Apr 23, 2015
Genetically modified organisms are a favorite villain of the modern food debate, with claims they threaten human health and the environment. But while many of these concerns have been debunked, media hype around this topic often distracts from the facts. We’re digging into that, and the possibilities and limitations of genetic engineering.
Mike Somers: GMO labeling requirement would wreak havoc on NH restaurants
Times are tight for a lot of people in Massachusetts. But a bill before the State House (House Bill 660) would make it harder for struggling families to make ends meet, as it would directly affect the cost of food, both at the grocery store and in restaurants.
HB 660 will force food manufacturers and restaurants to label their products if they contain genetically engineered, or modified, organisms (GMOs). You may have heard of GMOs because there’s a vocal group of people who are concerned about the effects of GMOs, even though their concerns are completely unfounded. Hundreds of exhaustive scientific studies have been done, and the data prove that GMOs pose no health risks. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Society and the World Health Organization, just to name a few, all support GMOs.
If HB 660 passes, it will be impossible for restaurants to comply with the labeling requirements. As any chef will tell you, restaurants are at the mercy of the supply chain with regard to raw products and ingredients they buy. For most of our members, menu items are made by hand, and many times a dish is customized at the customer’s request. Naturally this leads to huge variation in the ingredients and makeup of any particular dish listed on a menu.
For example, imagine a restaurant on a busy night. The chef starts the night working with non-GMO tomatoes, but in the middle of dinner service he runs out of those tomatoes. He’s forced to switch to tomatoes that have GMOs. He may have intended to serve non-GMO tomatoes all night, but he is at the mercy of his produce company, which had only GMO tomatoes available.
Are we now asking the chef to halt his dinner service to reprint menus to comply with this new proposed regulation? I know most customers get very upset if their food takes a little too long to be served on a busy night; imagine the backlash if dinner service must halt until the menus are reprinted!
Consider this: soy and corn are two ingredients in many products that we all consume daily. I am guessing that the majority of us are unaware that these crops are genetically modified. Given that a lot of restaurant menu items contain one of those ingredients, the impact of labeling would be exponential. It likely would be impossible (not to mention very costly) for restaurants to track and label ingredients as menu items change — many times in the middle of dinner service. The complexity of what the restaurateur is being asked to take on will have a dramatic effect. The expense to administer this regulation and then report back to a government agency will be time consuming and cost prohibitive, with the end result being higher menu prices to consumers.
We’ve been eating genetically engineered foods for the last 20 years. In fact, most of the foods we eat today contain some form of genetically engineered material, and there have been no problems. Not only have GMOs been proven safe and nutritious, but there have been no significant differences found between them and conventional foods. Requiring labeling of GMO foods would mislead consumers into believing they should be concerned about that product’s safety.
Ninety-three percent of Massachusetts’s food is imported. If we force the companies that sell to us to incur the added costs of putting a special label on their products just to be able to sell here, they will either opt not to, or simply raise prices. If they choose the latter, the prices you pay for a good meal out will surely increase.
Those who support the bill claim the consumers have a right to know so they can make educated choices. They already have that option by selecting and buying foods labeled “Non GMO” or “Certified Organic.”
As a footnote to this discussion, it is worth noting that voters in both California and Washington voted down ballot initiatives requiring labeling. I urge the Massachusetts House of Representatives to do the same.
Mike Somers is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Lodging and Restaurant Association