Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Is Behind the GMO Label Debate?

By Theresa T. Vo, MD
Austin Family Medicine Resident

Many of us calmly amble through the rows of our local grocery store unaware that the products on the shelves are the subject of tumultuous controversy regarding labeling of GM foods (genetically modified) or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). Original Cheerios, one of America’s favorite breakfast cereals, is now appearing on shelves with a new label, “GMO-Free.” Whole Foods will be phasing out GMO food that wasn’t labeled.

State legislation is changing as we speak. Connecticut in 2003 followed by Maine this year are the first two states to approve legislation requiring labeling on foods with GMOs. However, both Maine’s and Connecticut’s laws are on hold until several other states enact the same legislation. Pending legislation exists in California, Missouri, Minnesota, and Rhode Island.
This controversy is global as well. The certification of GMOs could be restricted to 10 years from prior unlimited duration, according to a draft law by Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science revealed on April 3, 2014.

So what exactly are we labeling?

The term “GM foods” or “GMOs” refers to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. DNA transformation introduces genes from different organisms, including naturally occurring soil bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens), into the plant while particle bombardment shoots DNA-coated microscopic gold particles into plant cells. The first genetically engineered foods appeared in the food market in the 1990s. Today, GM crops are being grown on about one-fourth of the world’s farmland, including staples such as corn, soy, canola, and potatoes.

Although we may not realize it, genetic engineering of food has been occurring for centuries. Resourceful farmers have bred plants and animals to emphasize certain attributes, gathered and planted seeds of fatter grains, selected meatier and hardier animals for breeding, and cross-fertilized different species of plants.

With advancements in biotechnology, we have improved fruit and vegetable shelf life, protein quality, and crop yield. Biotechnological advances also enable us to strive to manufacture edible vaccines and drugs; reduce the amount of herbicide and land needed for agriculture; and create vehicles for bioremediation, a technique that uses organisms to break down toxic substances. However, there are also major concerns about the impact of GMOs on human allergic reactions, increased resistance to antibiotics, and crossing GMOs with organic crops or species.

Some recent studies are suggesting links to human and animal health problems. For example, research from Dona et al (2007) suggests that GM foods may cause toxic effects in the liver, pancreas, kidneys, and reproductive organs of rats. Yet, other studies indicate that animals fed with feed derived from GM plants do not differ with respect to intake of nutrients, health and performance, hatchability, and milk yield compared with animals fed with conventional comparable feed (EFSA GMO Panel, 2007).

While it remains to be seen if these results are reproducible, it should be noted that GMOs have been studied and scrutinized for years. GM food manufacturers subject their products to more rigorous testing than is required of traditionally bred fruits, vegetables, and animals. The U.S. government also regulates biotechnology via three main agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Currently, major scientific authorities such as the World Health Organization hold that the position that GM foods are not likely to present risks for human health.

For a controversy like GM foods, creating a distinction between non-GMO and GMO foods through mandatory labeling requires some thought. Supporters of labeling argue it will enable consumers who prefer specially engineered GM goods to get them while enabling others to avoid certain foods. Labeling also can promote brand identity. Opponents of labeling believe the act would stigmatize biotech products, scare away shoppers, and unjustifiably mislead consumers into thinking that biotech products truly have different effects. Labeling could also be difficult to implement because the label may have to be maintained throughout the food chain if the GM food is used as an ingredient, food, or feed. With consideration to expense as well, are there enough consumers willing to take on the cost of such an enterprise?

Labeling GMO and non-GMO foods lends itself to different interpretation by individuals based on personal knowledge and bias. However, there is not enough research data at this time to prove or disprove a cause-and-effect relationship between these nicknamed “Frankenfoods” and bad health outcomes. Are we prematurely hyping up the fear by mandating labels? If it is going to be an expensive task to label foods, it may be worthwhile funneling those funds into further studies and dialogue to get more real answers. And while we wait, the GMO-averse can still keep to their personal GMO-free diet by choosing USDA-certified organic foods, looking for “Non-GMO Project Verified” sealed products, and examining barcodes on produce stickers. A four-digit code means the product was “conventionally grown.” A five-digit code that starts with a “9” means that the product was organically grown.

So although it may appear that we are quietly buying our weekly groceries, each of us also is casting our own vote in a movement that is stirring our nation.

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