Name a food preference and you can likely find items in the supermarket aisles to accommodate your wants and needs: low-fat, zero fat, low carb, gluten-free, organic, vegetarian-friendly, vegan, Paleo, Keto. The list goes on.
But no label stirs up quite as much debate as the one bearing these three letters: GMO.
In case you didn’t already know, those letters stand for genetically-modified organisms, referring to organisms — plants in particular — that are biologically engineered with genetic traits from other organisms that wouldn’t cross in nature.
Genetically modified crops have been a part of our food system since they were first approved for the market in 1994.
Over the past 25 years, scientists and government health agencies have agreed genetically modified foods, that are currently available for consumption, are as safe to consume as any other foods we eat. But those assurances aren’t enough for many people who see GM foods as unnatural, or who go so far as to refer to them as “Frankenfoods”.
Opponents argue there haven’t been enough long-term and independent studies to demonstrate there are no risks or impacts on the health of humans and urge consumers to avoid them at all costs.
Yet a survey published in Nature Human Behaviour, in early 2019, suggested the most extreme opponents of GMOs knew very little about the science they were arguing against.
Are GMOs safe?
“Every major scientific organization that has looked at this question has concluded that the genetically engineered crops on the market are just as safe to eat as crops developed though other genetic techniques,” says Dr. Pamela Ronald, a geneticist at the University of California at Davis.
“Everything we eat has been genetically altered using some type of genetic technique,” Ronald says. “Modern genetic approaches are no more risky than older, conventional approaches and, in some cases, one could argue there’s even less risk because they are well characterized and they’re regulated.”
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She explains humans have been being carrying out “genetic improvement” on crops for thousands of years, albeit in more primitive ways.
The difference between traditional cross-breeding and modern-day biological engineering is that scientists can introduce traits that make a plant resistant to certain insects, to withstand drought or flooding — Ronald’s work has focused on the development of flood-resistant rice — and crops that are essentially immunized to a specific virus.
That’s what was done to save the papaya industry on Hawaii’s Big Island after a the ring spot virus nearly wiped out all crops. In 1992, plant pathologist Dennis Gonsalves came up with an idea to immunize papaya with a fragment of genetic material from the virus itself.
“That’s been very, very effective, and today, something like 90 per cent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered and resistant to the virus,” Ronald says, comparing the concept to humans getting immunized to painful or potentially deadly viruses like measles.
“It’s a very exciting application because it’s been more than 20 years and there’s still no other approach to control that specific disease.”
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So why are people afraid of GMOs?
Even though there is more than two decades of scientific evidence supporting the safety of genetically-modified food, there is a large and influential anti-GMO movement and calls for transparent and mandatory labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients.
That’s because consumers really haven’t been given enough scientific information about GMOs, according to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois
“The technology itself is misunderstood and for a lot of reasons,” says Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and director of the Canadian Agri-Food Foresight Institute.
“The biotechnology industry has been educating farmers, the industry itself, but really forgot the consumer in the end,” he says. “So all of a sudden, it appeared in their foods and, of course, surprise is something that consumers don’t really like — especially when it comes to food safety.”
Charlebois points out most products in the processed food section of any grocery store contain at least one genetically modified ingredient. Although there are only a handful of genetically modified crops approved for human consumption in Canada and the U.S., there are four big ones that show up in a lot of processed foods: corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. Corn in particular will be as a component of any number of ingredients in processed foods.
He says the non-GMO movement has been quite successful in leading the charge against genetically modified foods and pushing for mandatory labeling because there is such a gap in the public’s knowledge of genetically modified food and how prevalent it already is in our diets.
A study Charlebois conducted in 2018 found there was widespread support across Canada for mandatory labeling. And Charlebois agrees with the idea, even if much of the agri-food sector isn’t necessarily on board.
“A lot of people in the industry wouldn’t see the point because they actually look at the science, and the science is quite compelling. There are little or no risks,” he explains. “But what we’ve argued for many years is that it’s not really about factual risks; it’s mostly about perceived risks. And that’s what matters most when it comes to risk communication with Canadians.”
“The ‘Non-GMO’ movement has decided to take on a leadership role in labeling, and that’s why we’re seeing more and more products that are labeled ‘Non-GMO’ and it’s been somewhat successful,” Charlebois says.
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Right now, such labeling in Canada is voluntary. It’s the same situation in the U.S. at the moment.
While you won’t see too many products labeled as containing genetically-modified ingredients, you will see plenty proclaiming to be “Non-GMO”.
Often times, it’s a “verified” label licensed by the independent organization known as the Non-GMO Project. It’s not an official health or food inspection agency.
Based in Washington state, the Non-GMO Project claims to have verified more than 50,000 products that represent “over $26 billion (USD) in annual sales.”
How does a product get a “Non-GMO Project Verified” label?
According to the Non-GMO Project’s website, companies pay to have their products third party “technical administrators” that will test and evaluate the product. An onsite inspection of a manufacturing may be necessary, in some cases, if the product is considered “high-risk.”
Once the evaluation is completed and a product meets the Non-GMO Project’s criteria, the seal can be licensed and used for promotion.
But the Non-GMO Project points out that its label dos not mean “GMO Free”, saying: “‘GMO Free’ and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology. In addition, the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is ‘GMO Free.'”
The non-“Non-GMO” label
Dr. Pamela Ronald sees the “Non-GMO” label as just another “label that people are selling.”
“GMO is meaningless and ‘Non-GMO’ is even more meaningless,” she says. “I prefer labels that are anchored to some kind of meaningful science and inspection.”
Ronald is a proponent of a new label that is coming soon in the U.S. It’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard that begins coming into place on January 1, 2020.
It will require “food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered foods are appropriately labeled” using official “Bioengineered” or “Derived From Bioengineering” seals.
There will also be a requirement for companies to connect consumers to information about the bioengineered ingredients in the product, by providing a telephone number to call or or a “digital link” like a QR Code that can be scanned using a smartphone.
Ronald says she hopes this will ease some fears or confusion about genetically modified food.
“I think that kind of transparency and information is really going to help people,” she says. “I think that there’s this idea that there’s some kind of conspiracy to hide something that’s damaging, and I just don’t believe it’s true.”