Monday, November 7, 2016

What’s In Our Food? Debate over genetically engineered food

Georgia: Since ancient times, humans have been genetically modifying food through cross breeding to get better wheat, corn or fruit. In fact, there probably aren’t many foods that haven’t been genetically modified. But modern methods of plant breeding using genetic engineering to enhance certain properties of crops is an ongoing source of consumer concern. “People are very anxious about this,” said Timothy Lytton, a distinguished university professor and professor of law in the Center for Law, Health and Society in Georgia State University’s College of Law.

“Part of it is that we’re very disconnected from our food. The population urbanizes, and people get farther and farther away physically, but also intellectually and emotionally, from the growing of food. You wouldn’t let complete strangers feed you with a blindfold on, and I think a lot of people feel the food system is kind of that. Stuff is coming to their grocery store in packages, and they don’t really know where it came from, how it was produced or the people behind it.” While some commonly refer to food produced through this process as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially refers to it as “food derived from genetically engineered plants.”
Genetically engineered food is crop dependent, but it’s everywhere. Corn, in particular, has an abundance of genetically engineered varieties. About 92 percent of U.S. corn, 94 percent of soybeans and 94 percent of cotton are genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy organization. It’s estimated that 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Because of the uncertainty about what’s in our food and the indefinite, long-term effects of this food on human health and the environment, many people are afraid of the food they’re eating.
Consumers can’t control the food supply, so the battle has taken another direction: food labeling.
Food Labeling Fight
In the 1990s, the FDA was sued by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity and a coalition of public interest organizations, scientists and religious leaders, with the goal of forcing the FDA to establish mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, said Patricia Zettler, associate professor in the Center for Law, Health and Society in the College of Law.

In 2000, a U.S. District Court ruled against the plaintiffs and upheld the FDA’s policy, which didn’t require companies to label these foods.
Since then, some states have tried and failed to pass laws requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
These disputes started a discussion about public accountability versus the first amendment rights of companies, Lytton said. Because people want to know something badly, is that enough to force companies to disclose information they don’t want to? Or does that violate companies’ first amendment rights?
Vermont had the first success in this battle, declaring that labeling genetically engineered food is necessary to avoid potential health risks and counter the environmental impacts of this food. Beginning on July 1, 2016, all food sold in Vermont with genetically engineered ingredients had to be labeled.
However, the victory was short-lived. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, along with Monsanto Co. (a major biotech seed maker) and others, filed an appeal, requesting a single, federal standard that would be less strict.
On July 29, President Barack Obama signed into federal law a bill that would require all food labels to indicate for the first time whether the item contains genetically engineered ingredients. The new, controversial law, which is supported by the food industry, pre-empts the stricter, recently passed Vermont law that required food to say “produced with genetic engineering.” When federal and state law conflict, federal law wins.
It’s up for debate how clear those food labels will be. While companies are allowed to print plain text labels on packages stating the product contains genetically engineered material, they’re not required to do so. A company could put a 1-800 phone number on the box for consumers to call. Or, they could use a QR code, a type of matrix barcode, that consumers can scan with their smartphone and then be taken to a website for more information, Lytton said.
Consumer groups argue this is not very revealing package labeling and puts all of the burden on the consumer. They also contend this type of labeling discriminates against lower-income consumers who may not have access to the smartphone technology required to learn further details, said Lytton.
“There’s probably some sense that regulations will not be as rigorous or consumer-oriented and will be somewhat more sympathetic to industry arguments about the burdens of having to label food with genetic engineering labels,” Lytton said.
However, if the FDA came up with regulations for labeling these foods, they probably wouldn’t be any more rigorous, Zettler said. The FDA has examined the latest scientific research and doesn’t consider genetically engineered foods to be a public health problem. Its thinking and recommendations for voluntary labeling can be found in a guidance document.
“There’s just not a sense that there are detrimental health effects from eating genetically engineered food,” Zettler said. “On the other hand, there’s a growing clamor among people who not only want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it, but they want to know whether or not the process by which it was made includes genetic engineering.”
New Age Food
Since the genetic engineering of food is causing such anxiety and controversy, why should we keep tampering with Mother Nature? Genetic engineering, as it relates to food, actually has many benefits.
In the 1960s, some thought the world’s population would reach such a large number by the 1980s that it would be impossible to feed everyone. Industrialization of agriculture, which includes genetic engineering, has increased the capacity of the food industry to feed people on Earth.
“It’s a more efficient way to grow crops,” Lytton said.
Despite the benefits of genetic engineering, some people are suspicious of messing with Mother Nature’s standard ways of providing us with food.
“There’s a deep tension about whether industrial food production is a good or bad thing for the planet,” Lytton said. “I think the rapid pace at which you can manipulate species makes people a little bit nervous about what the long-term implications might be. American regulatory culture tends to only regulate risks when we know a lot about them.”
In addition, some people are dissatisfied that seeds for crops are controlled and patented by companies, such as Monsanto.
“A lot of crops don’t produce their own seed,” Lytton said. “If they do, you’re not allowed to use the seed. You have to purchase the seed directly from the company. They own the rights to the seed. That’s created a concern about monopoly control over seeds.”
In many instances, particularly for corn, these seeds have been genetically engineered, he said.
“I don’t think you can find corn that you can guarantee doesn’t have genetically engineered material,” Lytton said.
As science continues to evolve, we’ve probably just begun to see changes in our food.
“This won’t be the last battle over labeling food,” Lytton said. “The question of industrial processing of food, this is an ongoing concern.”