Originally published: The Columbus Dispatch
Last year, Congress passed a law requiring that foods containing genetically modified ingredients reveal that on their labels.
By the summer of 2018, the marketing division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with defining what that label will say.
Will it actually list the ingredients (as in: "This product contains genetically modified corn and soy"), or will it be a QR code connecting the consumer to the information on a website?
The debate over the label's wording could prove as contentious as the fight over genetically modified organisms themselves.
GMOs are plants whose DNA has been changed. The development is beyond the typical cross-breeding of plants because the changes are made in the laboratory at the cellular level.
Opponents of GMOs fought hard for the labeling. They consider GMOs less safe than non-GMO foods, have ethical concerns about tampering with nature, have issues with the corporations behind GMO seed (namely Monsanto), and fear environmental damage from widespread GMO crops.
GMOs were developed 20 years ago to help farmers by changing the structure of plants to make them more resistant to disease so that farms could produce higher yields while applying fewer pesticides. GMOs are produced mostly for commodity crops: corn, soy, canola and sugar beet.
Recently, I had the chance to sit in while a group of Ohio food manufacturers learned about the new labeling law from Steve Armstrong of EAS Consulting.
Armstrong is a lawyer who specializes in food labeling and food-regulation compliance; until recently, he served as the chief food-law counsel for Campbell's Soup Co. Armstrong traveled to Columbus to speak at the Ohio Food Industry Summit, sponsored by the Center for Innovative Food Technology in Toledo.
Armstrong's time at Campbell's is significant because, under his counsel, the company adopted a corporate strategy not to oppose GMO labeling but to embrace the transparency.
He encouraged the Ohio food makers at the summit to do the same.
Some already are.
Orrville-based J.M. Smucker Co. already has introduced its labeling: On the back of a jar of apricot preserves, for example, you might be surprised to read: "Partially produced with genetic engineering."
Farmers, food manufacturers and the companies that produce genetically modified seed fought hard to avoid the labeling. Their fight made consumers trust GMOs even less, Armstrong emphasized, as consumers wondered what the industries were trying to cover up.
Armstrong pointed to recent research showing that 87 percent of global consumers think that GMOs are less safe and less healthy than non-GMO foods. This despite statements to the contrary from the USDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Armstrong's point is this: Consumers want to know everything about their food — where it comes from, what's in it, who produced it. Such knowledge is the consumer's right, Armstrong emphasized.
Soon, however, consumers might see their concerns about GMOs tested in a new way. The Arctic Apple, a fruit sold sliced that is genetically modified to not turn brown, is about to hit grocery stores nationwide. It represents the first GMO convenience product — rather than a commodity ingredient such as corn syrup — and producers want to see how Americans will react to it.
Scientific advancements in food production have helped to feed a hungry world, and that's a good thing. I know that the canola oil I often use probably comes from a GMO plant, and I don't think I'm suffering negative effects from it.
But I have concerns about corporate domination over the seed for American commodity crops. And an apple that doesn't brown, although it might be perfectly safe, strikes me as downright unnatural. Convenient, yes, but unnatural nonetheless.
Eventually, there might be enough research to convince everyone that GMOs are safe, or to prove that they're not.
Until then, providing as much information to consumers as possible is the right thing to do.