This summer hasn’t been good for genetically modified crops. In the past two months, fears of genetic modifications have caused Japan and Korea to ban imports of rice from the Pacific Northwest. Hawaiian activists lobbied against Bill 2491 to prohibit use of experimental pesticides on experimental genetically modified crops. An article in The Scientist openly asked whether Monsanto was poisoning the food supply. Those are the types of event that could spell the death knell for biotech-based crops.
Several New England states maybe hoping for just that. Legislatively, New Hampshire, beginning July 1, 2014, will require all foods produced wholly or partially through genetic engineering to be labeled as a GMO food – unless implementation is delayed until GMO labeling laws gain critical mass in New England, which is being considered. That may not be long. GMO labeling regulations have passed in Connecticut, and are being debated in Maine and Vermont. Lawmakers in New Hampshire, however, are considering exemptions for meat, dairy and eggs, deeming genetic pedigrees too difficult to ascertain for those products.
It will be interesting to see how those laws actually are implemented. While it is relatively simple to certify whether field crops are grown from genetically-modified seeds, the transportation system complicates the effort for grains. Take wheat for example. Because wheat from many farms is stored in the same silos, GMO labeling laws effectively cause farmers to abandon genetically modified crops or cause food producers to maintain two separate supply chains – one for GMOs and another for non-GMO foods. Otherwise, how can compliance be ensured? If some GMO wheat, for example, inadvertently remained in the rail cars that also ship non-modified wheat, must that wheat and the products made from it also be labeled that it may contain genetically-modified organisms? The question is open.
On the face of things, the logical solution would be to label most agricultural products with the notice that they may contain genetically-modified foods. That approach, however, is unworkable because many countries refuse to accept foods that contain GMOs. The white wheat bans put in place by Japan and Korea – now lifted – are a case in point.
When it comes to the food supply, emotion often trumps science. The precautionary principle, which says a product should not be introduced until it has been proven that it can do no harm, has played a dominant role in the GMO debates for many years. It is not easily relinquished.
In a speech in late April, former GMO opponent Mark Lynas spoke at Cornell University, pointing out that, “Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts (were) the precise opposite of the truth.”
The biotech industry, finally, is addressing the concerns publicly, outside the scientific journals, in language non-scientists can easily understand. GMOAnswers is a new conversation, public Q&A, and central online resource for information on GMOs, their background, use in agriculture, research and data. The site was launched by agricultural biotech companies that develop genetically modified seeds that enable such things as more nutritious plants, reduced use of water and pesticides and an extension of arable land by enabling plants to grow in harsher conditions. Facts, however, don’t always stand up to emotion.