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Last year, activists in California collected 1 million signatures to put the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act on the November 2012 ballot. Named Proposition 37, the measure sought to make California the nation’s first state to require the labeling of foods that included genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Given California’s size and national influence, Prop 37’s passage threatened to unleash a labeling rush upon the country’s food providers and ensure that similar legislation would find its way in front of voters across the U.S. On Election Day, however, Californians rejected the measure 53 to 47 percent, a result facilitated by an estimated $46 million push from a coalition of farmers, grocers, and food companies—including restaurant-industry stalwarts like PepsiCo, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods—who opposed the legislation.
While Prop 37’s opponents might have exhaled a sigh of relief following its defeat, the California measure still captured the nation’s attention and thrust GMOs onto consumers’ radars.
On November 6, 2012, the day of the Prop 37 vote, Just Label It chairman Gary Hirshberg wrote in a Huffington Post editorial that California’s “Yes on 37” campaign had raised the profile of GMOs far beyond California’s borders and warned: “This battle is just warming up.”
Nearly a year later, Hirshberg’s words seem prophetic. High-profile food activists are rallying against the use of GMOs, and more consumers are questioning whether to buy foods that use them. And, having answered customers’ cries for less sodium, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup in menu items, quick-service operators are starting to hear rumblings of an anti-GMO sentiment.
Earlier this year, Connecticut passed the nation’s first GMO-labeling law, albeit with an important caveat for the 3.6 million–resident state: The legislation would only become active if other Northeastern states jumped on board with similar provisions.
As it stands, more than two dozen states—including some of Connecticut’s New England neighbors—are crafting GMO-labeling laws.
The GMO discussion isn’t limited to the state capitol buildings. At Abbott Laboratories’ annual meeting in April, shareholders voted on a resolution to remove GMOs from the company’s nutritional products, including Similac infant formula. Though Abbott shareholders rejected the proposal, the vote further underscored the expanding target on GMOs.
“When you combine shareholder votes with increasing state legislation, it’s clear this issue isn’t going away,” says Joel Warady, chief marketing officer for Enjoy Life Foods, a suburban Chicago company that produces gluten-free, GMO-free, and allergen-friendly baked goods for foodservice and retail companies.
The 411 on GMOs
Developed in 1973, GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material, or DNA, has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. More to the point for food, GMOs use controlled, specific biotechnology to expedite the process of creating stronger, healthier, and more productive crops.
GMOs were developed and remain in use for good reason: Such crops produce higher yields with less fertilizer and pesticide input, and reduce the impact of drought and high temperatures on plant growth. Furthermore, genetically engineered crops help agriculture stay ahead of the climate-change curve and ensure more efficient use of land and water to feed the world’s booming population. Biotech scientists are now working on enhancing the nutritional value of GMO crops, improving taste and color, and keeping food fresh longer to reduce waste.
“The science is only moving forward,” says Dr. Ruth MacDonald, chair of the food science and human nutrition department at Iowa State University.
In fact, GMO technology has helped the world through several crises.
When the papaya ringspot virus threatened the entirety of the world’s papaya crop in 1980, a genetically modified variety rescued the crop. In 2000, the Rockefeller Foundation teamed with the International Rice Research Institute to develop a new rice seed that could deliver sorely needed vitamin A to people in developing nations. And one of the first GMO products to market, insulin, now aids thousands of Americans battling diabetes.
GMOs’ historical success and celebrated agricultural benefits, however, have failed to silence the growing number of critics. Concerns about GMOs run from human health and environmental risks to economic and philosophical questions, often setting up the perceived battle between the consumer’s health and the farmer’s wealth.
“This is one of the things that rubs people the wrong way,” MacDonald says.
Some have called GMOs morally irresponsible and attribute genetically engineered food to conditions such as obesity, cancer, infertility, genetic defects, and the prevalence of food allergies. These complaints have intensified the GMO debate. But what remains scary to most about GMOs is even simpler: the unknown.
Credible long-term studies on GMOs remain elusive, while the name itself proves frightening. After all, it’s one thing to discuss genetics and DNA when it comes to cancer or diabetes, but quite another to apply those words to the dinner table. Some, in fact, have dubbed GMOs “Frankenfood.”
“Consumers don’t understand GMOs, and that’s bred a growing concern and fear,” MacDonald says.
Warady says activist consumers who are eager to know what’s entering their bodies have pushed the GMO issue into legislative houses and corporate offices.
“The GMO discussion isn’t new, but the groundswell of consumer activism that’s attached to it is,” Warady says.
A misguided debate?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, the adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. has risen steadily in the 21st century. In 2000, about 54 percent of soybeans’ planted acres were genetically engineered; today, that number is 93 percent. GMO corn has experienced an even more dramatic rise, moving from 25 percent in 2000 to 90 percent in 2013.
During this explosion, no red flags have been raised regarding GMOs’ effects on health, according to a 2012 report on GMOs from the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” the report’s executive summary said.
In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted a policy of substantial equivalence, effectively saying that the GMO process does not change food composition. More than two decades later, the FDA maintains that stance, seeing no reason to acquiesce to the GMO outcry.
The fear that consumed DNA can pass into human cells is unrealistic, says MacDonald, herself a self-described concerned mother and consumer. She says modifying plant and animal genetics is a long-held agriculture practice that has simply been made faster and more specific by modern DNA technology. She calls the GMO fear “unjustified.”