GMOs: Where Are They Now?

Thirty years ago the term genetically modified organisms was unknown and today they are considered the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history. They have gone from being an unknown term to becoming one of the most talked about and controversial topics in food policy. The controversy of GMOs boils down to a variety of groups, which is what makes it so complicated. The players involved in policy and regulation include major food corporations, interest groups, environmental activists, agriculture biotechnology corporations, the government, and lastly concerned public citizens.

At the state level, both Maine and Connecticut have passed laws that require labeling. However, both came with trigger clauses that require five near by states to pass similar labeling legislation. These clauses were added last minute in order to avoid mega-corporations such as Monsanto from suing the state for violation of free speech and interstate commerce protections. Environmental activist groups have faced major hurdles in trying to label at the state level. The sheer difference in funds between environmental groups and well-funded interest groups is perhaps the biggest obstruction to their success.  In California and Washington large food manufacturers and their interest groups were successful in out-funding proponents by almost $40 million in negative campaign ads. Two months before the voting on the bill, 65% of California residents were in favor of labeling. In those crucial two months before voting, enough public opinion swayed towards opposition after constantly hearing ads about how labeling would increase the cost of food and greatly affect ‘mom and pop’ businesses.

AquAdvantage Salmon: Expected to be the first GE animal to receive FDA approval. Photo Courtesy of AquaBounty Technologies

The future of GMOs is in the hands of the public’s interests, climate change, and potential new legislation. As seen in the EU, the public’s interest has influenced the regulation of GMOs and public officials there have been quick to respond to the public’s concerns. In the US the government has yet to act quickly to the public’s concern of GMOs, because they continue to emphasize that research proves there are no human health effects of GMOs. However, even though the government has yet to make major changes as a result of the public’s interest, private corporations have taken into account the growing concern of foods containing GM ingredients and many have changed their processes voluntarily. In early 2014, General Mills announced that they would stop using genetically modified ingredients in their original Cheerios. Environmentalists have seen this bold move by General Mills and a huge step in the right direction, especially considering General Mills was among the funders of the opposition to GMO labeling in both California and Washington.

Climate change continues to be one of the arguments for the continuation of genetically engineered crops in the future. Proponents of GE crops argue that they are the solution for the uncertain future of many agricultural areas. Rises in global temperatures, increase in droughts in some areas, and increase in rain in others will negatively affect the agricultural industry and the ability for farmers to grow maximum yields. Proponents see this as an opportunity for GMOs to counteract the effects that climate change can have on the agricultural industry. Biotech companies have been researching and developing new GE crops that can adapt to climate change and grow in harsher conditions. These include crops that can grow with little to no water in drought conditions, and crops that can grow in extreme temperatures.

A labeling bill just passed in the Vermont Senate in April 2014. Vermont is likely to be the next state to join Maine and Connecticut, but will likely not come with the same trigger clauses. However, despite all the grassroots efforts and organization at the state level, this could all come to an end with a bill introduced by Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas. The bill, introduced in April 2014, would nullify any attempts by states to require GMO labeling. This would make a huge impact in state legislation, because more than two-dozen states have introduced some sort of labeling bills.

Biotech companies have continued to innovate over the past 20 years.   Monsanto is currently crossbreeding species in order to get the most desirable traits. This has included a broccoli variety called Beneforte that contains more antioxidants, and an onion that has been engineered to reduce the levels of the chemical that make people tear up. In the past Monsanto has made a fortune on their GE cash crops such as corn and cotton, however they are now reverting back to the ways of Calgene and are also trying to get into the consumer market. Since 1998, a GMO specialty crop has not been commercialized. The reason is that it is an extremely costly and long process to get approval. It is estimated to take 10 years and cost almost $100 million to get a GM crop into supermarkets.  This has not stopped the efforts of AquaBounty Technologies. They are currently close to seeking FDA approval of the first genetically engineered animal: the AquAdvantage Salmon. The salmon’s growing time is cut in half from 30 months to 16 months, and is able to grow year-round. Despite backlash from environmental activists, the FDA in 2010 announced that the fish was safe for human consumption. The FDA continues to review the salmon, and they have strongly signaled that they intend to approve the fish despite many companies refusing to sell it such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Target.

Twenty years later, the controversy of genetically modified organisms has reached an all time high. Policy makers have tried to work hard at finding solutions, but the regulatory framework in place is one with little leeway.  To solve this, there needs to be some sort of cap on lobbying funds. Well-funded interest groups that represent large food corporations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, trump over smaller environmental activists groups in both funds and in political power in Congress.   By implementing a cap, the playing field is even, and decisions will not be swayed by who has the deepest pockets. The US also needs to educate the public on GMOs, so that when it comes to passing legislation the citizens are well informed on the issue. Lastly, there needs to be more sound research conducted on GMOs.  The reason why so many are misinformed is because of conflicting research.  Sound science can lead to better and more informed policy making.  Genetically Modified Organisms will be an issue to watch in Congress in the future, and the most important thing to watch is whose interests will be represented.

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