Much debate has arisen over whether labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in America should be enforced as a law or banned from the country. As consumers continue to learn more information about the genetic modification process and its prominence in the food system, more people are anxious to know which foods contain GMOs and which do not.
The controversy, however, is that GMO-creating companies argue that the process does not alter foods and is 100 percent safe and beneficial, therefore they should not require a label.
GMOs are organisms that are modified through inserting a gene from one organism into another organism to create a desired trait, Theresa Lam, Board Member at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, said.
Connecticut and Maine previously passed GMO label laws, although chose to wait for other states to pass the law before enforcing. Also in America, there are currently about 29 states considering GMO label laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislature.
Vermont was of the 29 states in America considering GMO label laws, until April 23 when the law was approved by state lawmakers and is now awaiting approval from the governor. If it is approved the law will take effect for the first time in America in Vermont on July 16, 2016.
In Vermont the decision was approved in a 22 to 2 vote. “Today the Senate stood up for the vast majority of Vermonters who want to see genetically engineered foods labeled,” said Falko Schilling, a spokesman for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) on April 17. “Vermont is once again leading the nation by acknowledging the important fact that everyone has a right to know what they are eating,” he said.
One of the main reasons Americans are concerned with GMOs being used in the food supply is because there is no way to know if the food you are eating is genetically modified unless it is 100 percent certified as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic.
“The issue has become much more contentious in recent years, with more attention being paid as public awareness, education, and concern grows,” Charles Balzer, adjunct professor of science, chemistry and biology, said.
The production of GMO foods was first approved for commercial sales in 1994, which many people do not know, Balzer, a registered dietitian for the past 20 years explained. Another fact he added was the high percentage of food in America that is being genetically modified and sold in the food supply.
A study completed in 2011 by the Non-GMO Project found that 90 percent of canola crops, 88 percent of corn crops, 90 percent of cotton crops, 94 percent of soy crops, and 95 percent of sugar beet crops are genetically modified. These foods are used in a majority of the food supply and, because there are no GMO label laws in America, there is no way to know if your food contains GMOs.
“Estimates are that GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of conventional processed foods,” added Balzer.
The label laws provide the American people with the freedom to choose if they want to consume GMOs or not. American states are seeking to approve GMO label laws similar to the states across the world that currently have label laws in place.
“One of the most compelling facts surrounding this issue for me is that more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs,” Balzer said.
A significant amount of the American population believes that because other countries around the world are labeling and banning GMOs, America should also pass GMO label laws. In a 2013 TIME Magazine study, 93 percent of Americans reported that they would prefer if GMOs were labeled so they will no longer feel like they are being deceived.
“The government should be doing what the majority of the people want,” said Lam, who speaks to groups and organizations on the topic of GMOs. “And we want GMO foods labeled.”
Lam stated there is no “good argument” against GMO label laws. “The biotech industry claims that labeling will irrationally scare people away from eating GMO foods,” she said. “I think those that worry about consuming GMOs are well justified and want information so they can choose foods that support the farmers in whose practices they trust.”
Many scientists and chemical companies argue that GMO production is beneficial to the American population, increases agricultural productivity, benefits the environment, and can enhance nutritional content in foods.
“GMOs may maintain our food supply when environmental conditions change as crops may be made more drought resistant, pest and disease resistant or adaptable to different temperatures,” said Merrily Ervin, coordinator in the chemistry, medical technology and physics department.
Ervin believes that growing foods that are genetically modified will result in better-tasting fruits and vegetables that can live longer and will become resistant to insects. She stated that GMOs allows food to withstand environmental challenges of drought, disease and insect infestations.
According to information that Ervin referenced from findourcommonground.com, an Iowa State University study found that without biotechnology, global prices would be nearly 10 percent higher for soybeans and six percent higher for corn.
The findourcommonground.com website also referenced that GMOs decrease soil erosion, reduce herbicide runoff, reduces greenhouse emissions and produces beta carotene nutrients in the food supply.
Alternatively, there are many farmers, scientists and food safety officials that do not agree with the evidence the GMO supporters present.
The product of a GMO is a transgenic food, which means there is a transfer of genes from one species into another, Lam, also the Chair of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission said. Therefore, to create GMO corn the Bt bacteria genes are inserted in to the corn’s DNA, allowing the corn to produce the toxin and prevent weed growth. “This corn is the GMO corn that is sold to us as food that people eat,” Lam added.
Herbicide resistant and insect tolerant chemicals, such as Roundup Ready and Bt, allow organisms to withstand herbicide and insect tolerant chemicals to be sprayed. “Extensively spraying Roundup on weeds over time has allowed for the selection of Roundup resistance weeds,” said Lam. “Now greater amounts and stronger chemicals are required for the GMO farmers to control their weeds.”
This increased use of herbicides in the food supply causes a great concern for many. Pedra Daneshgar, assistant professor in biology, said one of the reasons he agrees with organic farming rather than GMO food production is because herbicides have been linked to cancer and can also affect the drinking water.
The United States Department of Agriculture found in a 2013 study that the use of herbicide tolerant soybeans increased from 17 percent in 1997, to 68 percent in 2001 to 93 percent in 2013. An increase in corn and cotton production saw similar results in the increase of herbicide tolerant and insect resistant chemical use over the past two decades.
Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an additional 383 million pounds of herbicide on genetically modified foods to withstand the herbicide and insect intolerant sprays, creating super weeds, stated the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT).
“This is causing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides every year,” according to the IRT. “Not only does this create environmental harm, GM (genetically modified) foods contain higher residues of toxic herbicides. Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.”
There are a number of health effects linked to the use of herbicide and insect tolerant chemicals in food that has caused farmers and consumers to become weary about genetic modification in the food supply.
The IRT also stated, “The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients.” Organ damage, gastrointestinal complications, immune system disorders, accelerated aging and infertility were found in animal studies that consumed herbicides, according to the IRT.
“Human studies show how genetically modified (GM) food can leave material behind inside us, possibly causing long-term problems,” the IRT stated. “Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us, and that the toxic insecticide produced by GM corn was found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.”
Lam, who is an avid gardener and is very concerned with the health impact of GMOs said, “Some claim that humans have been consuming GMO’s for over 15 years and no ill effects have been found. However, people get sick every day and nobody has followed these people to find out what they have been eating.”
Lam adds that people have become more skeptical about widely used products that are not tested after being told substances such as cigarettes, Dioxin in Agent Orange and DDT were safe years ago. “Why not follow the precautionary principle” with GMOs, Lam said.
Daneshgar, who created the Community Gardens at the University with Robin Mama, Dean of the School of Social Work, said the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden on campus are 100 percent organic.
Organic foods are grown without using any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Foods are grown naturally and must be tested to guarantee they are pesticide and chemical free to receive the 100 percent USDA organic label.
Daneshgar said he chose to create an organic garden for many reasons. “Organic is healthier for the people that consume the food and for the environment,” he said. “Also it’s easy to maintain an organic garden when you have so many volunteers to do the weeding, which prevents us from having to use herbicide.”
In deciding to choose an organic garden, Daneshgar said GMOs did not have much to do with his decision. He believes that because of soil contamination there are GMOs that are grown organically also. Therefore he believes, “Organic farming is focused on how the farming is done, not necessarily on the types of crops planted.”
The consumption and popularity of organic foods in America is on the rise, according to a February 2014 article in the Guardian.
“After years of falling sales, organic food is making a comeback,” the Guardian article, written by Jamie Doward, stated. “Supermarkets and food associations say that after a sustained decline, demand for organic fruit, vegetables and dairy produce is on the rise as consumers become more willing to pay a premium for food produced to higher farming standards.”
The article in the Guardian stated that after four years of decline, organic food production and sales began to increase in 2013.
This increase is a result of a “…strong appetite among consumers for the environmental, animal welfare and health benefits of organic produce,” Bob Sexton, Chief Executive at the Soil Association, said in the article published in the Guardian.
The reason people are turning to organic foods is a result of GMO food production, according to Lam. “More and more people are learning about GMOs every day,” she added. “The demand for organic vegetables is growing and I believe that the reason is because the people are trying to avoid GMOs.”