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GMO Foods: The Right to Know Isn’t Enough

Photo by Peter Blanchard on Flickr


This November, Californians will go to the polls to vote on an initiative requiring the labeling of all food items containing genetically-engineered (GE) ingredients. This initiative, if passed, mandates that all food products with a minimum of 0.5 percent GE ingredients has to be labeled, a standard that’s almost twice as stringent as Europe’s current levels, at 0.9 percent.

GE foods (also known as genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs, for short), are organisms which have had their gene structures altered to achieve a certain result, such as increased resistance to pests and diseases or higher yields per cultivated area. Most non-organic sweet corn, milk on store shelves and even soy products are all genetically modified foods. There are many concerns surrounding the widespread use of GE foods today, briefly divided into their long-term impacts on the environment (due to increased use of chemicals in farming, a loss of biodiversity and contamination of wild populations with an altered gene), and on human health (their allergy-causing potential, and possible food safety issues arising from mixing GE food meant for animal feed with products for human consumption).

As a skeptic of agribusiness motives with a meticulous curiosity about where my food comes from, I’m fully behind the principles of this initiative. GE food production is a broad and complex issue, and any move that illuminates information about it can’t be a bad thing. Yet, in the quest for more transparency, it’s important to remember that GE food currently plays a significant role in the world’s diet, particularly in developing countries. It was a little disturbing to read this response in the FAQ section on the campaign’s website regarding the issue of world hunger:

What will happen to the starving world if we do this petition in California?

A: First off, just because an industry that profits from GMOs says they will end world hunger, doesn’t mean it’s so. There are tons of studies that show organic methods and sustainable practices produce better yields than GMOs. You can google them. But…hey….this initiative is simply asking for labeling. What does labeling have to do with ending world hunger? What does our right to choose what we put in our bodies have to do with ending world hunger? The question is moot.

The question is certainly moot if one’s horizon is just to pass this initiative in the November elections and turn it to law. But to ignore the link between “just labeling” GE food and the broader issue of world hunger is to risk blinding ourselves to the reason that GE food exists in the first place: to feed the burgeoning world population in a way that’s scalable, sustainable and affordable.

Let’s not forget that changes in crop science and agriculture biotechnology were key parts of the Green Revolution’s mission to increase agricultural productivity and avoid global famine. In the late 1940s, Norman Borlaug, widely regarded as the father of this movement, developed principles of high-yield agriculture still in use today, such as breeding techniques for improving disease immunity among crop varieties and helping to cultivate cereals that could be grown in many climates, regardless of the number of daylight hours. In the 1960s and 1970s, his efforts helped avert famines in India and Pakistan, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The flip side was that these high-yielding crop needed large amounts of pesticides and fertilizer. Not a perfect solution, but if you were working to avoid imminent global famine, what would you have done?

The problem with GE food is not that they exist; after all, the very act of farming itself involves a degree of “engineering” and selective breeding for favorable traits —flavor, color, robustness, etc. Rather, it’s the lack of regulatory oversight that’s disturbing, especially as agricultural biotechnology has come to be appropriated by private, profit-driven entities, and the lengths these businesses will go to protect their interests at the expense of the consumer. I’m all for corporations making money and creating jobs, but when they’re in the business of producing a product that impacts our health and the security of our food supply, there needs to be an ethical dimension to their decisions beyond gaining market share and shareholder satisfaction. Unfortunately, the current regulatory structure, with various departments in the USDA, FDA and EPA bearing the shared responsibility of regulating GE food production, almost guarantees that none of them have enough power to step in and demand compliance.

For consumers lacking trust in the food supply chain, the issue is compounded by the fact that “GE food” is too broad and multi-faceted a category to be easily classified as completely good or bad. Is it good or bad to engineer a rice variety that’s nutritionally-dense for cultivation in countries where food is scarce? Is it good or bad to engineer crops that can grow in soils previously unsuited for cultivation, so that urban communities can have access to fresh produce?

There’s a plethora of information out there, with pro- and anti-GE groups passionately arguing their sides of the story. The fact is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of GE foods and their role in the world. Labeling food items with GE ingredients is a step towards raising awareness about the complexity of the issue and educating consumers. But in the larger scheme of things, GE labeling is really just a small hop towards where we want to be. If this initiative becomes mandatory, we’ve only just started to dig deeper into understanding what GE foods are all about. Information is power, and with the current movement towards greater transparency and choices in America’s food system, returning power to the consumers can’t be a bad thing.

The question is, what do you do with that power?

About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.

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