Activists gain ground in fight for GMO transparency
It’s a food fight of global proportions over something microscopic: the modified genes in the plants and animals we eat.
In one corner stand the biotech industry, agribusiness, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences, among many other science and industry goliaths. These groups insist on the safety of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) found in up to 80 percent of food crops and almost all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S., except those that are certified organic.
In the other corner are grassroots activists who argue passionately that tampering with the DNA of plants and animals cultivated for human consumption could expose people unwittingly to toxic or allergenic proteins. Manipulating the molecular foundation of the global food supply could have unintended, long-term consequences, they warn. They assert that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating and feeding their families.
The conflict over GMO safety is international: While the U.S., Brazil, Canada and Argentina grow most of the world’s GM crops, the products are banned or severely restricted in many European, African and South American countries.
In the United States, the “food transparency” movement is finding traction at the state level, with several states considering or enacting mandatory labeling laws, despite opposition from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences and other powerful organizations and companies. In Congress, opponents of labeling want to secure federal legislation that would nullify state labeling laws.
Scientists who support GMOs explain that the crops that are engineered to require fewer pesticides, yield larger harvests and grow in inhospitable conditions, in this way lowering the cost of food and reducing world hunger, especially as climate change shrinks arable land and the world’s population swells. These scientists argue that to force companies to disclose GMOs suggests that the products are harmful, stigmatizes the biotech industry and raises food costs.
But food transparency activists and other scientists question the neutrality of research funded by businesses with a stake in genetic engineering. They explain that RoundUpready crops, which are engineered to resist herbicides such as glyphosate, actually increase chemical contamination of the food supply, as farmers feel freer to apply herbicides to eliminate competitive plants. In October 2015, Consumer Reports magazine weighed in on the side of disclosure and drew a distinction between genetic engineering and the types of selective breeding that humans have done for millennia: “Unlike cross-breeding, which involves the transfer of DNA between closely related plants or animals, genetic engineering techniques move genetic material from any organism to any other organism.”
The Food and Drug Administration opposes mandatory labeling, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has tried — without success — to facilitate a compromise between opponents and supporters of GMO disclosure. At press time, federal legislation that would invalidate state laws requiring disclosure — called the DARK Act by opponents — has passed the U.S. House of Representatives; its fate in the Senate is unclear.
In January, Campbell Soup Company broke ranks with industry partners and urged other companies to follow suit — to give consumers the information they want. The company announced that it would begin disclosing GMO ingredients in “a clear and simple statement” on product labels and support compulsory labeling legislation.
While stressing her belief that GMOs are safe, company president and CEO Denise Morrison explained Campbell’s decision: “We put the consumer at the center of everything we do. That’s how we’ve built trust for nearly 150 years. We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food. GMO has evolved to be a top consumer food issue reaching a critical mass of 92 percent of consumers in favor of putting it on the label.”