Opinion

Sign of the genetically modified times

California vote on GMO labeling could change the food world

June 27, 2012
KEYWORDS Food labeling / GMO
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Bernie
Bernie Pacyniak

Not sure if everyone caught the news item regarding California’s ballot initiative involving mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The California Right to Know group submitted 971,126 signatures to get the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act on the Nov. 6 ballot. So, in addition to determining who will be president, Californians could forever change the U.S. food industry.

Currently, the United States doesn’t require food companies to tell consumers whether they use ingredients that come from genetically modified plants or animals. However, all European Union nations, Japan, Australia, and China have laws requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled as such.

If you thought the upcoming presidential election will be contentious one, watch the debate on GMOs as it heats up. First, many don’t believe that GMOs are safe, dubbing such “Frankenfoods” as posing long-term dangers. And, despite a 2003 inquiry by the International Council for Science saying “Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat,” there are legitimate questions about this biological tool.

As often is the case, for every study saying GMOs are safe, there are others disputing that validation. And real concerns regarding GMOS exist about allergenicity, gene transfer (transferred genes being absorbed by one’s body) and outcrossing (contamination of non-GMO crops by GMO genes). 

Even groups like the American Medical Association (AMA) are a bit muddled. Consider that their long-standing  stance on the subject, which states that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.”

Then, last week, the group came out with a statement saying that foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should have mandatory pre-market safety testing. Even the docs are hemming and hawing a bit. Well, actually, that is their nature.

Personally, I’ve always viewed GMO as an extension of grafting, but on a hi-tech molecular stage. And yes, the long-term effects are subject to debate and investigation.  Nonetheless, the benefits of GMO have – at least in my mind – far outpaced the risks: disease resistance, increased yield, soil adaptability, improved endurance to climate variations.

Nonetheless, if someone doesn’t want to have a food product with GMO ingredients, he or she should have the ability to purchase such items. Moreover, it seems that more and more consumers are willing to pay the price for that option.

Does that mean that the state or federal government should mandate such labeling? In California’s case, the people will decide. Before they do, however, I hope there’s an informed discussion on the subject, including the economic impact following such a decision.

And we’re not just talking packaging changes here. If the vote is a resounding affirmative for putting labels regarding GMO-sourced ingredients, most manufacturers will consider reformulating using non-GMO ingredients. But consider the cost of corn flakes when Kellogg’s has to find a domestic supplier of non-GMO corn!

Of course, there’s always the confectionery approach to this debate. Having just paid a visit to Tony Sweet, our 67th Kettle Award Recipient, I discovered that his company, Salt Lake City-based Sweet Candy Co., company has launched a line of all natural, non-GMO gummies. Moreover, the line’s doing well. (Look for details in coming August cover story.)

Sourcing wasn’t easy or cheap. But there is a group of consumers out there willing to pay the price for non-GMO products. I still think the food manufacturers should have a voluntary option on labeling until there’s definitive science on the matter. But anyone who’s ignoring the issue and those consumers clamoring for non-GMO products will find themselves a non-entity in the future.   

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