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Written by Alison Mooradian   
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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

GMO Controversy

It is difficult to keep up with the ever-changing food policy decisions that take place in Washington D.C. In the past few years, the issue of whether companies should label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been in the limelight.

Overview and History
GMOs are organisms whose genetics have been altered in a laboratory using genetic engineering.1 Lately, the controversy of GMOs has largely focused on GMO crops, such as corn, soy, and cotton. Farmers have been modifying crops for thousands of years using crossbreeding. Since the beginning of agriculture 12,000 years ago, humans have picked qualities in crops that created the most durable, biggest, and juiciest food products through crossbreeding. In fact, Bruce Chasey, the Executive Associate Director of the Biotechnology Center at the University of Illinois, asserts that we have changed crops such as wheat, corn, and strawberries so much from their ancestors that without human care, they would never survive in the wild now.2

GMO Corn - Genetically Modified Corni

Plant hybridization experiments continued into the 1800s with Gregor Mendel, a scientist who lived in what is now the Czech Republic. His work with crossbreeding different species of pea plants in the 1850s and 1860s served as the basis for modern genetic engineering. However, it was not until 1954 that DNA’s shape (the double helix) was discovered.3

In 1970, Monsanto, an agriculture company that has existed since the early 1900s, employed chemist John Franz to create an herbicide. That herbicide, known as Roundup, became one of the most commonly used by farmers. Monsanto then went on to create seeds that were “Roundup Ready,” meaning they wouldn’t be harmed by the herbicide. In 1972, biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen discovered how to cut pieces of DNA in one organism and insert them into the DNA of another organism, ushering in modern genetic engineering. Now, genetic engineering is used to make important crops resistant to insects, disease, herbicides, and pesticides.4 In 1994, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the Flavr Savr tomato (a GMO) in grocery stores. The Flavr Savr tomato had a delayed-ripening gene, which allowed it to sit on the shelf longer than a regular tomato.5

There has been a great deal of controversy about whether GMO foods are safe to eat, and there does not appear to be a definitive consensus on the issue yet. While the United States allows GMO crops, the European Union only allows a few GMO crops with mandatory labeling.6 However, there are environmental issues in regards to creating and growing GMO crops.

Pesticides GMOii
One of the largest environmental concerns is the continued and increased use of pesticides that goes along with growing GMO crops. The main producers of genetically engineered seeds (Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer) are also the largest producers of chemical pesticides. Therefore, the GMO seeds are “built” to be able to withstand the pesticides the farmer will apply to his or her crops. However, this system has unfortunately led to pesticide-resistant weeds, which leads farmers to use more and more pesticides.7 Through agricultural runoff , pesticides leave the field and enter our streams, lakes, and oceans, which then have detrimental health impacts on plants, animals, and humans due to their toxicity.8

Another environmental concern is the effect that GMO crops will have on wild and native plant populations. Some scientists worry that through uncontrolled and natural crossbreeding, GMO crops’ genetics will cause the genetics of other plant species to become more similar. This loss of genetic diversity leaves plant species more vulnerable to environmental factors such as drought, pests, and disease. Additionally, if GMO crops’ genes are too advantageous, they may spread uncontrollably and simply outcompete wild and native species, meaning those non-GMO species may at some point cease to exist altogether.9

In 2014, Vermont became the first state in the U.S. to pass a law requiring companies to label GMO food. However, since it is more costly for companies to have different procedures for labeling state-by-state, ConAgra said, “With a multitude of other states currently considering different GMO labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever. That's why we continue to urge Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible.” In fact, major food companies, such as Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, and Kellogg, decided to use GMO labels nationwide as the easiest way to comply with Vermont’s law, which will go into effect July 2016.10 For instance, Kellogg GMO products will feature a “Produced with Genetic Engineering” label as soon as mid-April 2016. Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, stated that these companies’ decisions marked “yet another step forward in what has been a long march towards greater transparency.”11

It will be interesting to watch consumer trends once labeling GMOs in the U.S. becomes more and more common.

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ii Image courtesy of dan at
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Last Updated ( Monday, 16 May 2016 )