Walk Talk Nutrition: GMO labeling

cornfield photo by Graylight via Flickr

cornfield photo by Graylight via Flickr

GMO labeling sounds simple.

With a proposal for GMO labeling on our state ballot, the Walk Talk Nutrition team decided it was time to discuss the pros and cons of this contentious issue.  It’s not as simple as it sounds.

In fact, GMO food crops are limited to:

  • alfalfa (used primarily for animal feed)
  • soy — approximately 94% of the US crop
  • sugar beets — approximately 95% of the crop
  • corn (not sweet corn, rather the corn used for animal feed and production of food additives and industrial products; close to 90% of the crop)
  • canola (used for oil)
  • papaya in Hawaii — we were both surprised by this.  And Donna can vouch for the deliciousness of Hawaiian papaya and will gladly eat it again.
  • a small percentage of zucchini/yellow squash crop (do we really need more zucchini?)

What are GMO plants?

Genetic engineering is used to insert pieces of DNA with desirable characteristics into a different species, to confer some benefit.  For example, Bt Cotton contains genes that give the cotton plants resistance to the destructive boll weevil.  The built-in resistance means farmers can use fewer pesticides on their cotton crops.  Food crops can be engineered to resist pests or contain higher levels of some desirable nutrient.

Why label GMO?

Some activists don’t like the idea of genetic engineering of plants.  They fear environmental effects that are hard to anticipate, such as effects on good insects or birds, or pollen drift onto fields that grow conventional crops.

They also think GMO-containing foods might be unhealthy or dangerous.  However, numerous reputable scientific organizations around the world reject that idea.  The FDA does not require labeling of GMO foods right now, because they are considered safe to eat.

Because there is no national labeling law for GMO, activists are demanding labeling by individual states, typically putting the idea to a vote.  This means each state has to establish an extensive bureaucracy to enforce and monitor labeling and identification of GMO foods in each state.

What do we think?

  • GMO foods are not dangerous, and not nutritionally different.  If they do end up containing any potential allergen, or toxin or are nutritionally different from conventional versions of the food, the FDA does require labeling.  The need for this type of labeling is uncommon.
  • If there is going to be GMO labeling, it’s best done by the FDA.
  • Labeling foods as “contains GMO” will lead some uninformed consumers to conclude that GMO foods are dangerous or toxic (similar to the effect of gluten-free labeling)
  • Organic foods must already be produced without any GMO ingredients or animal feed, so we already have GMO labeling.  It’s called “organic”.
  • Kathy still would like GMO labeling in the ingredients list, as a matter of information.
  • Donna doesn’t see the need, since we already have “organic” on labels.
  • We agree that the easiest way to avoid GMO foods right now, if you care, is to stick to unprocessed whole foods.  Processed foods are most likely to contain GMO ingredients.

For more information on genetic engineering and GMO foods:

Genetic Literacy Project

National Academy of Sciences study of Genetically Engineered Crops

National Academy of Sciences recent webinar on GMO crops

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