Genetically Modified Foods: Why All the Fuss?
By Maurice J. Hladik
Nearly two decades ago as genetic modifications were becoming a commercial reality, I was one of those who lauded the many benefits the technology delivered in a handful of important crops, primarily soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. To an agriculturalist, enhanced weed control with glyphosate-resistant plants (e.g., Roundup Ready) was an incredible advance in sustainable farming. Additionally, insecticide applications can be eliminated or reduced, yields improved and profits to farmers increased. This is as close to a magic bullet as farming has ever experienced.
Given all the advantages over conventional crop varieties, the global farming community has enthusiastically embraced genetically modified (GM) technologies as outlined in a 2011 report presented jointly by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. From a humble beginning in 1996 with 2.8 million hectares of GM crops in just six countries, by 2009, GM farming reached 134 million hectares. This is the entire area of Germany, France, the UK and Italy combined. The original six had expanded to 25 countries by 2009, of which 15 were classified as developing nations. All this in only 13 years; by all accounts, the growth in the application of this technology continues unabated. Globally, by 2009, 77 percent of all soybeans grown, 26 percent of corn and 21 percent of canola utilized GM technology. By comparison, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics put the share of U.S. production of organic soybeans and corn each at a fraction of 1 percent of the total crop harvested. In another study quoted in the Swiss/UK report, it was estimated that by 2007, the incremental global farm income thanks to GM technology was $7 billion.
GM Technology Around the World
From a global food security perspective, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the global percentage of the undernourished fell from 33 percent in 1969 to 16 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the world’s population increased from about 4 billion to nearly 7 billion. Over this period, the number of adequately fed people more than doubled from 2.5 billion to nearly 5.5 billion. While many advanced agronomic technologies and practices are involved, genetic modification played, and continues to play, an increasingly important role in this trend to feed the world.
Early on, consumers decided they were perfectly content with the selection of food products just as they were. To them, what went on at the farm or the challenge of feeding the world was not their concern. Then the fearmongers moved in, spread their nonscientific superstition and proclaimed the technology a global scourge. Unfortunately, evidence to the contrary, particularly the sustainability benefits on the farm, only makes most peoples’ eyes glaze over. Thus, the facts were discounted, ignored or not understood by the majority of people; thus, the conventional wisdom that evolved was that GM food was bad and became an urban social responsibility to be anti-GM organisms (GMOs).
GMO Effects on Food Safety
Consumer awareness of all the issues, both pro and con regarding GM technology and its application, is often lacking. Interestingly, food safety is not a particularly prominent concern and is somewhat lost in a range of issues. Perhaps the most common anti-GMO refrain is a visceral dislike for Monsanto, starting with the misconceived view that farmers are being forced to use their products in addition to such irrelevant facts as the company’s involvement with Agent Orange in Vietnam. Others cite hypothetical environmental concerns while ignoring the very real sustainability benefits. The ethics of asking farmers to purchase their seed every year is another cause, which ignores the fact that they are perfectly free to grow conventional crops but prefer GM technology. None of these factors has anything to do with the inherent safety of the product.
The main thrust on food safety was captured with the “precautionary principle” or “release it only after it is proven to be safe” argument. This was a serious topic of peer-reviewed articles on GM foods a decade ago, but serious discussion appears to have fallen off, as no negative safety-related issues have emerged for the hundreds of millions of North Americans and others who have had a regular diet of GM foods for nearly two decades. A parallel might be tomatoes, which were considered a poisonous member of the nightshade family in the early 19th century, and while there has been no rigorous scientific initiative to demonstrate otherwise, this fruit seems to be no longer surrounded by negative controversy. Indeed, even GMO-skeptic Europeans recently completed a $425 million meta-analysis paid for by the European Commission entitled A Decade of EU Funded GMO Research and summarized their findings as follows: “The main conclusions to be drawn from the 130 research projects and involving more than 500 independent research groups is that biotechnology and particularly GMOs are not, per se, more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding.” Unfortunately, this major piece of research has been ignored by the popular media, and relatively few are aware of its existence and profound conclusions.
The Industry-Consumer Interface
While there is a GMO good news story to be told, the technology providers, the agriculture industry, government and food processors in the U.S. and elsewhere have been, understandably, relatively quiet on the subject. There is little to be gained by entering into a debate that not only would be difficult to win but also would draw more attention to the topic and further ratchet up the level of sensationalism in the media. Unfortunately, relative silence from those involved in the food chain plays into the hands of the opposition, which maintains that this perceived cloak of relative silence signifies some sort of coverup.
However, despite the best efforts of the anti-GMO movement, it seems as if the majority of consumers do not actually care if they are eating food with such ingredients. Aside from the recent rejection by California voters of Proposition 37 that would have required food products containing GMO ingredients to be labeled accordingly, a more telling indication of consumer apathy comes the same study quoted above. It concluded that “most people do not actively avoid GM food, suggesting that they are not concerned with the GM issue.” Thus, where GMO labeling has been in place for years, consumers appear content with the “right to know” but do not act on the information provided.
If further evidence is needed regarding public apathy toward the consumption of GM foods, the organic movement already provides such a product, as engaged farmers must, to gain certification, grow crops without any genetic modification. Yet according to USDA, only about 1 percent of all farmers and the same for total farmland in the U.S. are certified organic. Despite lower yields for organically grown crops, there seem to be ample supplies in most food outlets. This supposedly well-known, readily available avenue to non-GMO foods seems to be a path infrequently traveled by the bulk of consumers.
At the commodity level, wheat makes an interesting case study that the processed food industry might draw upon. In 2002, Monsanto applied for certification of GM wheat for Canada and the U.S., only to find that the wheat industry in both countries did not want it introduced for fear of market loss in Europe and Asia. A decade later, while no GM wheat is grown commercially anywhere in the world, North American wheat farmers observed the financial and agronomic benefits of sister GM crops and realized that the noise from those against the technology actually had little impact on consumers and thus its advantages would outweigh any resistance in the marketplace. The earlier GMO-avoidance position has been reversed by the wheat industry, and now they urge technology providers and regulatory agencies to deliver for them as well.
I predicted that had Proposition 37 passed in California, it would not have made a lot of difference. Assuming that the GMO labeling requirements would be yet another modestly presented piece of consumer information like that on hormone-free milk containers, most consumers would still probably be guided by brand recognition, price, quality or whatever else leads them to place an item in the grocery cart. The above-mentioned European experience supports this hypothesis.
One concern would have been segregating product with the GMO label for the 10 percent of the national market that California represents. Interestingly, many of these same products are sold in the similarly populated Canadian market. However, it is recognized that the international border makes a much better barrier against inadvertent movement of goods between jurisdictions, than, say, between Oregon and northern California.
The passage of legislation of an individual state requiring such a GMO designation on food products remains in the realm of the possible. With the precedent set by Whole Foods to label all products containing GMOs by 2018, it will become even more dificult for politicians to avoid the issue. Few consumers will realize that this action by Whole Foods with their existing organic-centric focus is a solid business decision, but would be an immense challenge for individual, conventional food retailers.
Given this scenario, perhaps the food industry should drive the agenda on GMO labeling instead of accepting a regime designed by ouitsiders. It could be a simple declaration “May contain GMO ingredients” on products containing soy, corn, canola and cottonseed oil except those that are certified organic. The “may” is important because there is no guarantee that the product does indeed contain GMOs, and the use of “Contains no GMOs” should not be permitted because “Certified Organic” is GMO-free. The parallel to this is the prohibition of labeling pork and poultry products “Hormone free” because by law, the practice is not permitted.
Such an initiative, while probably heresy to the industry today, would address the right-to-know movement and would go some distance in silencing critics of the entire food industry who maintain that GMO transparency is in short supply. Furthermore, with a vast array of products thus labeled, the typical consumer will most likely behave as do their European counterparts and ignore it just as they are doing with much of the existing ingredient information.
In conclusion, GMO technology uptake by the global agricultural industry has been profound. Its overwhelming and continued dominance of a few key commodities has led to its near-ubiquitous presence in a host of food products. As there is considerable evidence of consumer apathy, in all probability as time passes, GM foods will join the heirloom organic tomato as an uncontested element of our diets.
Maurice J. Hladik, an accredited farmer, agriculture economist and authority on farming and food consumption, is the author of Demystifying Food from Farm to Fork.