What’s behind the GMO debate?

A review of the stands both sides are taking in the growing fight over genetically modified foods

With several states debating regulating genetically modified foods, I decided to do some research.

According to the United Nations, the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion in the next 90 years. While much of this increase is expected to come from high-fertility countries, more countries will be leaning on farmers to help meet this growing demand. Undoubtedly, this will lead to food cost increases, but could science ease this expected supply strain?

According to the World Health Organization, “genetically modified organisms can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” A majority of commodity crops, including soybeans, sugar beets and feed corn are genetically engineered.

The case can be made that GMOs are beneficial, as they help reduce agricultural costs related to weeds, pests and crop disease. However, today’s consumer is interested in knowing whether GMOs present long-term health risks.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration announced that genetically modified foods are generally regarded as safe. Additionally, the FDA established a voluntary process by which the producers could consult with the FDA about safety and regulatory issues prior to marketing.

For years, critics of this policy have raised questions about safety and transparency for the consumer.

While Congress and federal regulators continue to debate this issue, it seems as though New England is ground zero for deciding future GMO policies.

In December, Connecticut became the first state to enact a GMO statute, albeit with a caveat. Rules from the law will only become effective until after at least four other Northeastern states with a combined population of no fewer than 20 million approve similar acts before it is officially enacted.

Northeastern states are defined by the law as Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In January, Maine became the second state to enact GMO legislation. Similar to Connecticut, the bill has a caveat that the legislation will not go into effect until five nearby states, including New Hampshire, pass similar laws.

As in Connecticut, the caveat seems to be in response to concerns about litigation from industry opponents as well as whether consumers who live in states that have enacted the legislation will be facing a competitive disadvantage.

While GMO legislation has been introduced in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Vermont currently seems to have the most momentum via H. 112. That bill is in currently in the Senate after passing the House last year.

Legislation in New Hampshire was defeated in January.

Both sides of the argument raise passionate points.

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Foods, which includes companies like Monsanto and Pepsi, are opposed to GMO legislation. While they raise concerns about increased costs, a potential patchwork of state regulations that could cause supply chain inefficiencies along with possible confusion that labeling could cause, the coalition believes that the FDA should be given authority to determine whether GMOs pose a health or safety risk.

It would also like to see the FDA set federal standards for voluntary labeling and set a legal definition for the term “natural” on food and beverage labels.

However, an increasing number of consumers are concerned about how GMOs will impact their health.

According to a New York Times poll released on July 27, 2013, “Americans overwhelmingly support labeling foods that have been genetically modified or engineered, with 93 percent of respondents saying that foods containing such ingredients should be identified.”

While policy continues to be shaped, companies like General Mills, Ben and Jerry’s, Chipotle, Kashi and Whole Foods have all taken proactive stances on GMOs by either eliminating them altogether or pushing for increased labeling.

It may be that the marketplace and the consumer’s voice will be the deciding factors on future GMO policy after all.

Ron Lanton III is owner and chief strategist at True North Political Solutions LLC, Manchester. He can be reached at 240-482-6060 or ronlanton3@truenorthps.com.

Categories: Health