A growing number of food stores nationwide—Whole Foods among them—claim their customers fear the consequences of consuming genetically modified organisms or even GMO-related food products.
Mark Squires, president of Good Earth Natural Foods, headquartered in Fairfax, California, said he doesn’t want GMOs on his store’s shelves and if he becomes aware of any containing GMOs, he labels them as such. “The sales for those products drop precipitously,” he said. “My customers don’t want them.”
On the other side are domestic and foreign industry giants—DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta, for example—that have been heavily invested in GMO technologies for more than 20 years.
In the middle are consumers, who either wittingly or unwittingly, have been buying and consuming GMOs for years. Now they are being told by food and environmental activist organizations the products represent a significant hazard to the environment and a possible human health risk.
At the center of the controversy in this country is the labeling of GMO products. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last July to block state GMO labeling laws that Maine, Connecticut and Vermont had drafted.
Clearly, opposition to GMOs is driven by perception rather than science. “The issue is so politicized,” Alison Van Eenenaam, a University of California-Davis animal genetics extension specialist, said. “The science is really clear, and yet people believe otherwise.”
It hasn’t always been that way. Consider that U.S consumers have been purchasing, preparing, eating and wearing goods that have been GMO-derived for more than 20 years. It is also worth knowing the first GMO introduced in the United States was an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant in 1986.
Eight years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first human GMO food product, the Flavr Savr tomato. It is a tomato engineered to be rot resistant to extend its shelf life. Consumer response then was positive, though the tomato’s patent holder was unable to turn a profit, owing to high production and distribution costs.
Times have changed, however. In November 2015, FDA approved its first genetically engineered (GE) animal for use as a human food: the AquAdvantage salmon, modified to grow much faster and larger than farm-raised salmon. Dubbed the “Frankenfish” by the popular press and a number food safety groups, opponents gathered more than one million signatures opposing its entry into the U.S. market.
FDA officials chose science over expressed public desires. “After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious,” the agency said.
The fruit industry’s involvement in this issue is not as great as feed grains. The reason is a barrier to entry: the high costs associated with getting FDA approval for genetically modified foods.
“Regulatory costs prevent most of the fruit industry from entering this field,” says Amit Dhingra, an associate professor in Washington State University’s horticulture department.
It’s true. Compared to the U.S. feed grain industry, there are just a few fruit and vegetable GMOs in existence. The University of Hawaii began work on a ringspot virus-resistant papaya in the late 1980s. Using capsid proteins, the proteins that make up the shell of viruses, researchers produced a cultivar with a built-in immune response to the disease.
Approved for consumption in the United States and Canada — and not the European Union — the virus-resistant papaya entered commercial production in 1999. Today, three quarters of the Hawaiian crop consists of the GMO cultivar.
Del Monte earned FDA approval for a GMO pineapple it has yet to introduce into U.S. market. A pink-fleshed variation, it contains lycopene, a pigment that provides red color to fruits and vegetables.
The Arctic Apple, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruit Inc., Summerland, BC is slow to brown. The company silenced the four genes responsible for production of one of the compounds that causes browning to deveop their apple (Read more in the Growing May 2015 issue).
According to the Physicians for Responsible Medicine, lycopene is also an antioxidant. Research has shown it can help prevent prostate, lung and stomach cancers as well as pancreatic, colon, rectal, esophageal, oral cavity, breast and cervical cancer. It may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by cutting LDL cholesterol and lowering blood pressure.
Del Monte received FDA approval to import its Rose pineapple into the United States from Costa Rica, where it was developed, in 2013. The fruit is awaiting FDA approval for release.
A small British firm added anthocyanins, the pigments that gives blueberries their color, to potatoes. Anthocyanins also reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Southern Gardens Citrus, a Florida citrus processor, is developing a greening disease-resistant orange variety using spinach defensins. Defensins are proteins that bind to cell membranes and open a corridor, which interferes with the normal flow of ions and nutrients.
In 1992, FDA created an industry-assisted approval process to determine the safety of genetically engineered food products. “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the producer of a new food to evaluate the safety of the food and assure that the safety requirement of section 402(a)(1) of the act is met,” FDA says. In short, patent holders will provide safety data to FDA for review. Though many believe the process seems to be too easily compromised, it is virtually the same way FDA has conducted its new drug approval process for years.
Pharmaceutical companies provide the drug’s research and development data, as well as the structure and findings of the laboratory and clinical trials they conducted. FDA reviews that data — as well as ongoing and existing research — on the way to determining if the claims the companies make about their offerings are accurate.
Five years after unveiling its approval process, FDA officials publicly stated the agency could find no discernible difference between GMO-derived and conventional foods. It frequently applied similar language to its written approvals of many of the GMOs now in the market.
Between the review process it devised in 1992 and still uses today, and its 1997 public statement, it is not hard to see why consumers might think FDA is playing it a little too cozy with the industry. It could also explain why there is such a huge disconnect between consumer perception of GMOs and the science that evaluates and created them.
Barrier to entry
Despite public perceptions to the contrary, GMO patent holders did not gain much traction against FDA’s GMO approval process. The average time it takes to secure approval from FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA is about seven years and the cost — from application to approval — is generally believed to be about $130 million.
Van Eenenaam decries the process. “After 20 years of data,” she says, “why do we need a $130 million process every time we introduce a new Bt (insect-resistant) product?”
It’s a good question, not only because those costs will certainly be passed along to consumers, but also because of the economic barrier to entry it creates.
Only huge corporations with the deepest of pockets can afford a $130 million bill before a product gets to market.
“There are a lot of genetically engineered applications sitting on the shelf because organizations like universities cannot afford the cost of bringing them to market,” she says.
Still another reason why U.S. consumers believe GMOs have significant credibility issues is that U.S. consumers are not alone in their doubts about the efficacy of GMOs. A number of countries — including the European Union — have either temporarily or permanently banned GMOs, mostly in response to consumer demand.
The Unites States has done the opposite. It wholeheartedly embraced GMO products until recently.
Stating genetically engineered corn posed “an imminent threat to the environment,” a Mexican federal district judge banned the sale of genetically modified corn in his country two years ago. The judge ordered the national government to ensure all commercial, pilot or experimental plantings ceased immediately.
On Dec. 16, 2015, the Philippine Islands instituted a temporary ban on all GMO-related research.
The European Union is currently involved in proceedings to eliminate the only GMO crop now planted in any of its countries, a Bt (insect-resistant) maize variety now grown only in Spain and Portugal.
All this indicates the emergence of a global market for non-GMO food products. As early, as 2009, Cargill has been selling lines of non-GMO food products made from what it calls idP (identity-preserved) farm products.
This market is not limited to industry giants. A family-owned, Fargo, ND-based seed and bulk ingredient supplier, SK International, sells an array of identity-preserved beans, grains, flours and oils, to name a few. The company boasts some familiar certifications, including USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project and Orthodox Union Kosher certifications.
China, a leader in terms of agriclutlure technology, has been experiencing flat crop yields. The country represents one-fifth of the world’s population, yet only seven percent of its ag-sustainable land.
Incomes are on the rise in China, which is driving increased demand for meat. Its corn imports totaled five million tons in 2014 and are expected to grow to 20 million by 2020.
Knowing it must find ways to feed its growing population, the Chinese government made a huge investment in GMO research. Chinese scholars estimate their government has spent more than $1.4 billion since the early 1980s looking to improve crop yields.
As in United States, China’s people appear to have serious reservations about consuming GMOs. As early as 2003, Chinese citizens publicly expressed concern about GMO-related health risks (see the chart). While Westerners might find it shocking that a totalitarian government would heed the wishes of the “little” people, listen they did.
The Chinese government’s response has been to all but halt commercial development of its GMO research. In the United States, private citizens have taken to the courts to get the government to sit up and listen.
The frenzy feeding U.S. consumers’ growing conviction of the rightness of their beliefs is a wide array of litigation surrounding GMOs. This litigation will have direct and indirect effects on U.S. domestic and foreign grain markets.
Syngenta, the European crop chemical and farm seed production giant, is at the center of the legal swirl surrounding GMOs. In a class action suit filed in October 2014, claimants allege the company released a seed corn variety into the U.S. market with traits not yet approved by the Chinese government.
At the time, China was United States’ third largest corn export market. China halted U.S. imports in November 2013 when it found evidence of an unapproved GMO trait in its imported corn. Experts suspect the trait was the result of drift. That cost farmers who did not even plant GMO seed billions in lost revenue.
There is a family of lawsuits addressing cross-contamination, a major component of existing and possible future GMO litigation. Scientists suspect pollen from GE seed-produced corn travels by various natural mechanisms, including the wind and on the legs of bees.
“It is possible genes could move from engineered varieties to natural ones through pollen transfer. Corn tassels produce pollen, which we know will cross with a plant 50 yards or so away to the silks of another plant.”- Peggy Lemaux, University of California-Berkeley genetics and genomics of cereal grains extension specialist
Carried by the wind, birds or bees, pollen adheres to property boundaries just about as well as the smell of manure or the noise of a corn dryer operating at midnight. How unlikely is it, then that GE corn pollen might move from farm to farm by this means?
Labeling is another hot button issue. The Vermont Legislature passed a law, signed by its governor, to require labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. A group of trade associations filed suit against the law, which takes effect in July 2016, alleging it is unconstitutional.
Foreseeing the likelihood of litigation concerning the law, the Legislature also created a $1.5 million legal defense fund in the act. Vermont’s law is one of many passed or being considered by legislatures around the country.
More than 30 states have introduced bills to require GMO labeling. U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July 2015 to block three state GMO labeling laws in Maine, Connecticut and Vermont. Stalled in the Senate because its members did not take up the bill, the measure proposed voluntary labeling. Anti-labeling interests attempted to pass the bill by adding a rider to a federal spending bill moving through the Senate.
A coalition of Democratic senators halted the effort in mid-December 2015. Into 2016, groups supporting mandatory labeling continue to urge members of Congress to support a mandatory labeling bill.
In late March, the U.S. Senate again blocked the proposed legislation to overrule states and local legislation requiring food companies to label food products containing GMOs. Almost at the same time, General Mills—one of the most vocal opponents to mandatory GMO labeling—announced it will label all U.S. products containing GMOs to meet the Vermont July 1 deadline.
Mandatory vs. Voluntary
GMO labeling is the hottest issue consumer advocacy groups are currently advancing. According to a November national poll paid for by the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Food & Water Watch and Just Label It, 77 percent of Americans favor a labeling law.
Eighty-eight percent of those responding said they would prefer a printed GMO label appearing on the food package.
The day when science might have quieted opposition to GMO foods has passed. Nor has FDA’s finding that there is no discernible difference between GMO and conventional foods gained much traction with a growing number of U.S. consumers.
This is a battle lost, something U.S. farm groups seem to have already acknowledged. Both National Farmers Union and American Farm Bureau support some form of labeling, though predictably, they are on opposite sides of the issue: AFBF supports voluntary GMO labeling while NFU supports mandatory labeling.
For now, perhaps the best path through this high-stakes dust-up is for farmers to decide which varieties they will grow in their orchards and groves: GMOs, identity-preserved varieties or cultivars and varietals produced through traditional breeding programs…and step aside to let the lawyers, lobbyists, lawmakers and special interest groups hash out the litigation and fruit or produce labeling.