GMOs debate gains momentum

Will other states copy Connecticut to label genetically modified food? Amelia Levin assesses the landscape

GMOs, short for genetically modified organisms, aka “bio-engineered food,” have been a source of heated debate lately. The US state of Connecticut passed a law requiring the labelling of GMOs used in food production. Also this summer, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service granted approval for use of the Non-GMO Project Certified labelling for meat and poultry.

Genetic engineering escalated in the mid-1990s as a way to protect increasing corn and soybean production from pest and weed infestation. GMOs are crops in which DNA sequences have been manipulated to withstand strong, widespread application of pesticides and herbicides. According to the Center for Food Safety, roughly 85% of corn and 91% of soybeans produced in the US are now genetically modified.

The GMO Project Certified label indicates that only non-GMO corn and soybean were used for animal feed, but the USDA’s approval is contingent on the inclusion of resources for finding additional information on the packaging. This particular label, some say, carries more weight as a third-party certified representation than simple marketing claims do.

Proponents say GMOs help reduce crop destruction and that there is not enough research showing any harmful effects. Opponents say it’s too soon to tell the extent of damage GMOs can cause over time. A recent study by the Organic Systems Journal concluded that pigs fed genetically modified soy and corn suffered more bouts of stomach inflammation and uterus enlargement than those that ate non-GMO feed. Still, GMOs continue to have the FDA’s backing; the government entity has stated that these foods are not “materially different” from other foods and therefore do not require labelling.

Politics could soon change that. The heart of the debate took place earlier in California, where Prop 37 proposed a bill that would require retailers and food manufacturers to label GMO foodstuffs. Manufacturers and major seed companies like Monsanto vehemently fought against the proposal, banding funds together for advertising and other marketing, arguing the requirements would lead to intense cost increases, something they say they would have to pass on to farmers and consumers. Though the bill fell 53%-47% in a vote last year, the battle wages on and opponents continue their push for legislation.

Since Prop 37 and the Connecticut bill, similar proposals have popped up in other states, including Maine and Washington. The Vermont Senate is debating a similar bill passed by the state’s House of Representatives earlier this spring.

The GMO labelling proposal has also had its day in federal government, when Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) proposed that the FDA create a space for GMOs on its food labels. Overseas, the European Union already has labelling requirements for genetically-engineered foods.

Some companies have declared support for non-GMO foods; Whole Foods committed to discontinuing use of GMO ingredients by 2018, and Chipotle has plans to eliminate such foods from its menu.

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