GMO products and GMO labeling have been at the forefront of many people’s news feeds over the last few years. Some people have strong opinions one way or the other, but many people are unaware of what these terms mean or what their implications are. We’re going to delve into a little bit about why you should care about GMO foods and why discussions regarding their labeling are so important.

First, we need to be clear on terminology. All domesticated animals and crops have gone through some form of human modification. Many of them have been inbred over centuries and preferred traits are selected for future breeding. Historically, this is how we increased crop yields, the sweetness of a fruit, or the amount of milk a cow would produce. Crossbreeding to select for preferred traits is largely considered safe and acceptable, since these traits naturally occurred in other varieties or species of the same crop.Growing heirloom fruits and vegetables is a way to focus on the older varieties before as much crossbreeding was done, but even these are inbred for domestication. Even companies like Monsanto have streamlined crossbreeding and screening to develop new crop varieties based on these widely accepted techniques. Although all of these agricultural items are developed through a form of genetic selection and engineering, crossbreeding not not results in considering a plant or animal as as GMO or genetically modified organism.

Newer technologies allow for the direct manipulation of genes. Instead of waiting to crossbreed an insect resistant strain of wheat with a drought resistant strain of wheat, the genes can be directly inserted into the gametes to produce the desired outcome without having to wait for several generations of crossbreeding. This form of manipulation also allows for the insertion of traits that may not exist in other closely related strains or species. Perhaps a population suffers from a vitamin A deficiency or someone wants to make pink or reddish rice; a gene could be inserted into a strain of rice so that it makes beta-carotene. While the reddish color would be a clear indication that something is different about this rice, many modifications are less obvious. Any manipulation of an organism by directly modifying the DNA results in a GMO.

Basically, all domesticated plants and animals have been genetically modified by humans, but only the modifications performed in a lab by directly adding, removing, or altering genes result in a GMO.

So what?

Any genetic modification, whether crossbreeding on a farm or DNA manipulation in a lab, has the potential to be good or bad. Allowing a sweet and hot pepper plant to grow near each other will lead to peppers that are no longer only sweet nor extremely hot. A hypoallergenic plant may be crossed with the traditional strain resulting in a plant that could send someone into anaphylactic shock. The introduction of a pesticide gene into a crop may decimate a local insect population that feeds on that plant; similarly, a pesticide resistance gene may result in the overuse of pesticides, leaving the plants unharmed, but ravaging the local environment. While positive change is always the goal, the ramifications are often not immediately clear. The fact that an organism has been modified, either on a farm or in a lab, is no indication of its potential benefit or harm to the environment, industry, or consumers.

Aren’t these unknowns reason enough to ensure proper labeling of GMOs?

“Proper” labeling is a tricky point. Since not all modifications are created equal, simply labeling “GMO” is akin to saying “this cow sat down during inclement weather”. Was this cow ill or did it just prefer to sit down from time to time? One answer means you should not be consuming any part of it while the other is completely innocuous. The only way to discern the value of a modification would be to know what was changed and how. Would it be best to require plan labeling with additional details via the company’s website? Perhaps this would easily allow consumers to know that something was changed and find out for themselves what it was. However, the push against all GMOs makes it clear that many consumers view GMOs are inherently bad. In this case, a plain “GMO” label serves to stigmatize a product containing an innocuous modification. This would be like requiring labeling a food because a family of whooping cranes lives on a lake at the farm. Some consumers would think it is wonderful that the farm is supporting whooping cranes, but it would also raise questions as to why they are required to disclose this information. Do the cranes contaminate the water on the farm? Is there some unknown risk of cranes near foodcrops? Simply forcing such a disclosure says nothing about what the statement means. Furthermore, there is already some disclosure of GMO products through the USDA’s organic labeling. According to the USDA, “[t]he use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products”; although a GMO does not need to be labeled, an organic label already denotes a non-GMO product.

This is the danger of forced GMO labeling. Without knowing what, why, or how of a modification, the only thing accomplished by such labeling is applying a stigma. If the purpose of forced labeling is disclosure, then we should advocate for disclose. State what has been altered in any modified organism, e.g., “this soy has been bred to resist drought”, “neonicotinoid resistance has been inserted into this strawberry”, or “these apples lack the gene for browning.”

Let’s accept that large corporations on both sides of this issue are pouring money into the fight and focus on the science and what this means for the rest of us as consumers. Too often these discussions devolve into accusations that someone is being paid by one side or the other instead of focusing on the issues at hand and the vast majority of us who have nothing to gain but everything to lose if we fail to engage in useful discussions of this topic. The majority of people who care about these topics are not connected to any of the big agricultural corporations on either side (do you really think they are paying tens of thousands of people just to rant on Facebook?). It’s okay to be frightened when you don’t know what the impact of something is, but it is not ok to lash out at people because you don’t want to know. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “[t]he good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.

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