Genetic Engineering: Mandatory labeling movement gains ground

FFT Tim Young Head ShotGenetic engineering is moving into our lives and on our dinner plates at lightning speed. Businesses are quickly taking sides and Congress is getting involved as consumer demand for natural food continues to accelerate. A collision is in the making.

Transgenic engineering – less accurately referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – were just laboratory experiments in the 1970s. First to hit the market was the most common form of medical insulin used today. It was developed by transgenically combining human insulin with the E. Coli bacteria and approved by the FDA in 1982. GMO food products arrived a decade later. They now represent over 80 percent of the corn and 95 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S, and virtually 100 percent of Michigan sugar beets. Today between 70-75 percent of food items found in grocery stores contain genetically-engineered ingredients.

It’s a complicated issue for consumers to wrap their heads around and even well informed journalists add to the popular myths around this industry. The most common misperception states that humankind has been doing this for thousands of years in the form a crossbreeding or hybridization. Unlike these practices, such as cross-pollinating a few apple varieties to develop a Honeycrisp or a Schnauzer and a Poodle to create a Schnoodle, transgenic engineering allows for the direct transfer of DNA from any organism to another in a laboratory. You could literally cross the Honeycrisp with the Schnoodle. The majority of transgenically modified plants that we consume today were developed to withstand the application of herbicides, most commonly glyphosate, a derivative of Agent Orange.

Controversial? Yes. Media is brimming with naysayers and proponents, along with a lot of bad information on both sides. Proponents site studies that GMOs are safe for human consumption and speak about a future where plants will one day be modified for larger yields, longer shelf life and increased nutrition. On the other hand, opponents site studies showing GMO foods causing organ failure and immune disorders in lab animals, while raising concerns about the impact of increased usage of herbicides on the environment (According to the U.S. Geological Survey, glyphosate usage increased 16-fold between 1992 and 2012).

Like global warming, this debate will rage on long after the science is in. But what will be settled long before is your right to know. Businesses are taking sides as the likes of Stoneyfield Yogurt and Whole Foods Markets call for mandatory labeling. In the case of Whole Foods, they announced over a year ago that all products on their shelves will be GMO-free by 2018. They are locking horns with the likes of bio-tech companies like Syngenta and Monsanto whom, along with their alley, the Grocery Manufactures Association, have been spending millions lobbying against mandatory labeling and opposing state referendums.

Locally, more businesses are weighing in. “As part of our Purchasing Pledge Guidelines, we are committed to offering non-GMO alternatives whenever possible,” said Stephanie Mathewson, marketing & communications manager for Oryana Natural Foods in Traverse City. “Our customers are aware of the risks and seek out non-GMO foods.”

Brad Oleson of Oleson’s Food Stores added, “I can tell you that there is a huge demand out there from customers for organic produce and gluten-free items which is a direct result of GMOs and pesticides used on fruits, vegetables and grains. There seems to be no end to the demand for these products as our customers are getting more informed on this issue.”

Truth in labeling

Nationally, the mandatory labeling movement has been gaining ground, with 70 various state and local governments passing some form of GMO regulations. Citing increased foods costs and the challenges of navigating a patchwork of state and local laws, food industry giants took their concerns to Washington, which resulted in pending legislation in the form of H.R. 5199.

As 2015 came to a close, the “Safe And Accurate Food Labeling Act” was passed the House but failed to get out of Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s Agriculture Committee in the Senate. (The act would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism, the labeling of natural foods, and for other purposes.)  While its name would indicate it’s all about truth in labeling, the way the bill is written it simply calls for voluntary labeling and pre-empts state’s rights to pass laws or regulate GMO labeling.

As the owner of a food company, I’ve seen the demand for more transparency in our food system grow steadily over the years. I’m committed to and do provide that information to our customers and support mandatory labeling. Because we incur that additional expense voluntarily, mandatory labeling would actually lower our food costs by leveling the playing field for everyone.

What can you do?

Moving forward, I’d suggest no one hold their breath on this one. Meanwhile, consumers who wish to avoid GMOs or a food company that wants to provide GMO-free options to its customers have a few choices: Organic certification has always prohibited the growth or use of GMO foods or ingredients and is third-party audited by the USDA. For non-organic foods there is a common voluntary labeling program provided by the Non-GMO Project. They audit product ingredients from farm to package. Those products contain a logo that states “Non-GMO Verified.”
As a business owner, consumer or both, the choice is yours. For now.

Timothy Fitzgerald Young is founder and president of Food For Thought, Inc., creators of organic and wild-harvested gourmet specialty foods. An extensive background in travel and human relief work in the developing world inspired his creation of Food For Thought in 1995 with the mission of creating and raising awareness around just and sustainable food systems and to serve as a model to counter the global industrial food system. In addition, Timothy serves on the boards of On The Ground and Northwestern Michigan College Foundation.