Tag Archives: gmos

First State to Enact GMO Food-Labeling Law

In the U.S., genetically modified food-labeling is optional. The Food and Drug Administration only makes sure that the food consumers consume is safe and wholesome, it does not consider the fact that the sources of GM foods are genetically engineered. Considering the FDA is responsible for protecting and promoting public health, you would think that the labeling of GMO foods would be a requirement by now. Altering crops’ genes can not only be harmful to the environment by causing a greater use of pesticides, but it can also potentially be harmful to human health. With this in mind, it is no surprise that more and more states are proposing bills to require GMO labeling. As of Wednesday, Vermont could likely be the first state in the country to require labels on genetically modified foods.

“The vast majority of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GMOs, and food companies estimate that about 80% of U.S. packaged-food products contain GMO ingredients in some form.” With many people being aware that the use of genetically modified plants and animals has already become commonplace in today’s society, the lack of consumer consent in the choice to eat these foods creates an ethical dilemma. With nearly 80% of all prepackaged food in a normal grocery store containing GMOs, it is a bit concerning of whether or not these foods are safe. Similar to the way that drugs have to be tested to be put on the market and need to have the ingredients and side effects clearly labeled on the package, it should be the same case for food. Consumers should have the right to know what exactly they are eating. With very little testing having been done on genetically modified foods and long-term results being unclear, many other countries have already put much stricter regulations on GMOs. In the European Union, for example, the introduction of labeling requirements led to the virtual extinction of GMOs in food. Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont says, “I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food.”

However, the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients will come with a cost to Vermont. Farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, and grocers will have to spend more on record keeping and compliance. Could this result in products being assigned a higher price than what a consumer would see them priced at in another part of the country? Considering the bill’s two-year timetable, it should give farmers and companies plenty of time to adjust. “There is no reason this would put a real burden on farmers, food makers or consumers,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Naked, Hairless Kiwi

The sweet, green kiwi that everyone is familiar with is hoping to take on the popularity of apples and bananas in kids’ lunch boxes around the world. The problem? The kiwifruit’s fury, brown skin. It just doesn’t possess the convenience of being able to pick up the fruit and eat it quickly on-the-go. Scientists and consumers agree that the fruit industry is one industry where it’s better to not have skin in the game. “When you actually look at the top 10 fruits in the world, 6 of the top 10 are convenience products,” says Lain Jager, chief executive of Zespri Group Ltd., the world’s biggest exporter of kiwis. “Having a kiwifruit that you could eat in a convenient way would be fantastic.”

To save consumers the trouble of using silverware to consume their food, scientists are trying to genetically modify kiwis to remove their hairy outer coverings. Zespri’s hope is to develop a more convenient fruit with either an edible or an easy to peel skin in order to compete with apples and oranges. With the millions of dollars that they’re pouring into research and development, along with taxpayer funds from the government, Zespri is hoping to push the $1 billion kiwi industry even higher, providing a boost to New Zealand’s economy.

While this may seem to be a perfect solution to the kiwi’s inconvenient and displeasing skin, in my opinion, it may not prove to be as profitable as Zespri hopes. When it comes to genetically modified foods, more and more people are starting to look at them as a health concern. Animal studies have shown changes in internal cell structure, abnormal tumor growth, and even unexpected deaths when testing GMOs. It is for this reason that many people wish to avoid them. While some GMOs can actually enhance the flavor of foods and allow crops to become more resistant to unexpected problems of disease, there are risks involved that may outweigh the benefits. For example, in the process of genetically modifying foods, many of the foods’ natural nutrients are depleted and thus consumers do not absorb these essential nutrients that they otherwise would be consuming. Time and time again, studies have also shown that the consumption of GMO foods increases the risk for food-based allergies in people. GMOs have not yet been proven safe and for this reason, many consumers are hesitant to buy them.

So are the millions of dollars that Zespri is putting into R&D to produce a genetically modified kiwi going to be worth it? Just the thought of a hairless kiwi with edible skin is a little disturbing to me. Altering the fruit’s signature outer layer is redefining the kiwi altogether; not to mention, Zespri’s breeding program has not had much success with it. So-called “kiwi sommeliers” have rejected a pile of misfits with features like “pale gray skin”, a “spicy kick”, and even “hints of kerosene.” One variety that had easy peel skins and a more appealing “white fuzz” was not suitable for the market because “it tasted vegetable-y—it was bland and lacked sugar.” While crossbreeding kiwis continues to be an obstacle for scientists, it’ll be interesting to see if Zespri’s attempts eventually pay off.

Grave Matters, Over-simplified

So the New York Times has an op-ed today about how the US desperately needs to adopt GMO wheat (in case you’re unfamiliar with the terminology: GMO stands for genetically modified organism; grammatically speaking, that means the op-ed should drop the O in its title). I’m not completely on either side in the pro- or contra-GMO debate; I think it’s a multifaceted problem that’s really hard to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However, I do want to point out some thoughts I had on this while reading the Times piece. I also wanted to give a few quick comments on that piece itself.

The authors talk about the high price of wheat compared to soybeans and corn, and how – in their view – it’s hurting consumers and producers alike. The amount of acres US farmers use to plant wheat is decreasing, with producers shifting to on of the other two crops. The supposed reason for that shift is that, while “corn and soybean farmers avidly embraced the nascent biotechnology revolution”, wheat farmers were too afraid of anti-GMO sentiments among consumers, and avoided using transgenic seeds.

There’s two points this analysis is missing. First of all, it ignores the farm subsidies paid to growers of all three crops. Sure, wheat producers racked up a grand total of $35.5 billion between 1995 and 2012, while soybean producers only collected $27.8 billion (corn easily takes the crown with $84.4 billion). But that still means that these subsidies distort prices a lot more than the possibly rational by wheat producers not to switch to GMOs if they had a reason to believe that people wouldn’t want to eat GMO products (or that certain countries wouldn’t import them). On that note, why would wheat farmers be afraid to afraid consumers, but corn or soy producers wouldn’t? The authors believe that’s because “domestically produced corn and soybeans are fed to animals or made into ethanol, while most wheat is consumed by humans as bread or pasta”; but what do you think happens to the animals? If you feed them GMOs, a person who wouldn’t eat those themselves would presumably also boycott GMO-fed beef.

Lastly, the authors point out that transgenic wheat could solve drought problems; “[m]uch of the nation’s wheat crop comes from a section of the central plains that sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which is rapidly being depleted.” Well that’s a worthy cause, but why not attack the root of the problem and try to stop the depletion, instead of just slowing it down?

Anyways, those are somewhat minor points in the grander scheme of things when talking about GMOs in general. I said I wasn’t on either side of that debate, although up until this point it might seem as though I am. But I do think there are some valid arguments to be made in favor of using GMOs; those include higher yields, reducing the use of pesticides and overall vulnerability to natural shocks. Those are sensible goals, and GMOs can be used to reach them. So long as they aren’t proven to be unhealthy (and the verdict’s still out on that one).

However, much of the current practices surrounding GMOs need to change. I can’t talk about this topic without talking about Monsanto. Monsanto is a genetics and biotech food giant controlling a huge share of the market in genetically modified food; around 95% of all soy and 80% of all US corn crops use Monsanto seeds (incidentally, they also developed Agent Orange, back in the day).

Maybe not surprisingly for a company commanding such a huge market share, Monsanto can afford some shady business practices, such as suing farmers who buy Monsanto seeds and store them. They justify that by pointing out that “[w]ithout the protection of patents there would be little incentive for privately-owned companies to pursue and re-invest in innovation.” That’s far from the truth, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing a post about copyright laws and patents later.

They’re also trying to create a huge database to collect information on US farms, which has raised concerns as to what happens with the data once Monsanto has them (although Monsanto isn’t the only firm facing such issues; consider Google or Facebook).

So while I’m not against GMOs in theory, I do think that what’s actually happening on that front needs to change. There’s no good reason why Monsanto should have as much of a monopoly in its field as it does; there’s also patent rights issues here, as I’ve hinted at above. Competition wouldn’t hurt here. I also don’t see why we shouldn’t label GMO food (Monsanto’s shareholders disagree, apparently). After all, if there’s no harm in GMOs (and personally I don’t believe that there is), it can’t hurt to provide more information to consumers as opposed to less.