Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have received increased media attention over the last year due to controversial bills introduced in the US to label them as well as conflicting views by countries in the European Union as to their safety.
The most widely produced genetically modified crops are corn (maize) and soy, which is why these foods have become prevalent in the majority of processed foods. The alluring claim regarding GMOs is that they produce higher crop yields with fewer pesticides and less water, yet this argument has been widely disputed among the scientific community. Health effects are another major disputed factor, with research being conducted, but often for short time periods, and funded by the biotech companies themselves, posing a grave conflict of interest.
Strong campaigns against labelling GMOs have been launched by biotechnical (Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont) and food companies (Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo) in the US in order to protect their reputations in the market. The public will likely not respond well to finding out that 80% of packaged food in the typical American grocery store includes genetically modified organisms, even though the same companies trying to stop labelling deem the technology and subsequent food safe for consumption. The public has been consuming GM foods for decades, but major health concerns linked to diet have also come about in that short time frame.
Vermont’s new “no-strings-attached” bill requires labelling of GM foods that are offered for retail sale by July 2016. A few other states such as Maine and Connecticut have passed similar bills, but they would only go into effect once other states passed laws requiring the same, in order to streamline the process. Regardless, there is a federal bill being drafted to trump any requirements for labelling of the foods. The so-called “Safe and Accurate Food Labelling Act” would put food labelling into the hands of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). This would prevent states from being able to pass their own labelling requirements.
The EU has begun taking a laxer approach on the technology, allowing GMOs to permeate more of its tightly regulated food system, but setting clear guidelines in order for farmers and consumers to make informed choices regarding the use of GM technology. Still, many countries have opted out of allowing any GMO cultivation, including Greece, Germany, and Austria.
Earlier this month, France banned the cultivation of any strain of genetically modified maize, even those approved at the EU level in the future. According to Reuters, “Longstanding differences between EU countries resurfaced in February when they failed to agree on whether or not to approve the GMO maize variety Pioneer 1507, leaving the way open to the EU Commission to clear it for cultivation.”
Meanwhile, Spain has become the EU’s largest producer of GM crops. The country relies heavily on EU farm subsidies and fears WTO backlash if they do not allow the technology. According to Our World, “The difference between the GM maize cultivation rates of France and Spain stems, on the one hand, from weak mobilization of social organizations and insufficient public debate in Spain and, on the other, from the Spanish Government’s support of GM companies.” Portugal, too, has been a long time advocate for GM technology, planting mostly GM corn varieties.
It would seem that the world is at least getting a bit louder on the issue of genetically modified food crops, even if it is for conflicting reasons. There is no telling what the world’s food system will look like in fifty years, but GMOs are here, and likely to stay. Awareness is key to starting the dialogue on such controversial issues. The EU, though more open to GM technology these days, is likely not going to relinquish its reputation in employing the precautionary principle. Though the US will likely hash out this labelling debate for months, if not years to come, they can still count on a strong base of grassroots activists ready to inform the public about food safety issues. It may take time and patience, but the people will fight for their food; it is our fuel for life.
Sarah Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy