by Karl H. Kazaks
Earlier this year, Maine’s governor signed a law making The Pine Tree State the second state in the country (after Connecticut) to require food producers to label foods which contain GMO ingredients. Those laws only take effect, however, when five other surrounding states also pass similar legislation.
Such legislation has been proposed in over half the states.
New Hampshire’s legislature defeated one such proposal at the end of January, while in the past two years voters in California and Washington did not pass ballot measures which would have required GMO labeling.
According to USDA estimates, GMOs can be found in 70 percent of the food sold in American supermarkets.
In plants, a GMO is an organism into which humans have purposefully inserted a gene from another organism. For example, scientists have developed carrots which contain genes from another plant which permit carrots to have higher calcium levels.
There are numerous reasons researchers seek to develop GMOs: to reduce yield loss due to pests and weather, to increase yield, to reduce the amount of chemicals needed to grow a crop, to provide for better economic opportunities for farmers, to provide better food security for the world, and, as in the carrot example above, to improve nutrition.
GMOs have been planted on over 400 million acres in countries around the world. Some believe GMOs will be the basis for a new green revolution. Others, however, are concerned about the technology — there have been total or partial bans on GMOs in over two dozen countries, including China, Russia, and many European countries. Over 60 countries require some kind of GMO labeling.
What is it that concerns of GMO opponents?
Critics worry that inserting genes into a plant may have disruptive consequences — such as on the functions of neighboring genes — not fully understood today.
They also worry that the technology can have negative effects on humans or other organisms, pointing to a correlation between the Bt toxin used in GMO corn and diarrhea for some members of the population. They also wonder if GMOs can affect other parts of the environment.
Critics are concerned too with genetic contamination — the spread of GMO plants through natural methods. The possible use of terminator gene, which would prevent the unauthorized use of GMOs by causing second generation seeds to be sterile, is particularly concerning to them.
Phil Freedman, operator along with his wife Ilene of House in the Woods Farm outside of Frederick, MD, counts himself as a GMO skeptic. He is particularly worried about such important technology being held in the hands of a few biotech corporations.
“I don’t think we have to do these things and I don’t think these companies have our best interests in mind,” he said.
Proponents feel differently
Proponents of the technology dispute that GMO plants have a detrimental effect on humans or the environment, referring to numerous studies with such findings.
As reported in a recent press release, Dr. Cathleen Enright, executive vice president of Food and Agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said the technology is needed to help feed what is projected to be a global population of 9 billion humans by 2050.
“We will need as much knowledge, diversity and innovation as possible, but we need all agriculture production systems.”
At present, eight GMO crops are commercially available in the U.S.: sweet and field corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, squash and papaya. Every other commercial crop, too, has at some point been affected by some kind of human intervention, such as plant breeding.
Biotechnology research continues, looking to create more products which have the benefits of current GMO crops — e.g., reduced chemical use — as well as help create new qualities in crops, such as drought-tolerance and the reduction or elimination of the allergenic properties some foods have on people.
What seems bound to continue, too — as the current movement to require GMO labeling indicates — is the dispute over value of GMO technology.