Whether or not people should be growing and eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) tops the list of controversial conversations about food and agriculture today. On one side, GMOs, or GM foods, are cost effective ways of raising crops and have generated many economic benefits in both developed and developing countries. On the other hand, there have been calls for more research on GMOs’ health effects including evidence of increased pesticide use on GM crops.
Many developed countries in Europe are against GM crops because of the lack of scientific consensus on the health effects. The concern about health is what lead the European Union to have GMO labeling requirements since the ’90s and more strict labeling regulations since 2004. Despite these concerns, many companies have gone forward in development and implementation of GM crops around the world. Labeling is key to keeping people informed of what they are consuming while not punishing companies for researching and developing GM crops to be used in the US and abroad.
Since nearly 90 percent of US corn and over 90 percent of US soy are genetically modified, GM foods are not going away. Unfortunately, the only way to know if foods are GM-free today is if they are marked organic. This means that those who choose to live a GM-free lifestyle spend significantly more on food. While genetically modified foods have been on the market since the ’90s, there are no labeling regulations in the U.S. Consumers often don’t know when they are eating GM products. Without labeling people cannot weigh the benefits of cheaper products with the information they might have about the health concerns of GM foods.
The debate over the use of GM crops gets more complicated when considering the world’s growing population. Last year, the director of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated that food production needs to increase by 60 percent if we are to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Developing countries can use GM seeds to reduce the cost of food production by reducing the need of mechanical weed production and new GM seeds have been developed to curb malnourishment .
The GM debate is full of extremes and both the needs of developing and concerns of developed nations need to be considered. Cautious developed nations should not prevent GM crops from being used to help reduce world hunger. But the urgent need for increased food production should not prevent testing for safety and informing consumers of the risks that may come from eating GM foods.
Seed companies like Monsanto claim that GM crops are better because they reduce the need for unsustainable agricultural practices and reduce the need for chemicals on crops. However, a study by the Food and Water Watch found that farmers actually use more herbicides and pesticides on GM crops that are resistant to certain chemicals. GM crops are also expensive to develop and if they are supposed to help reduce world hunger, the money being invested into GM crops could be used today to invest in fertilizer and irrigation for more immediate yield increases. The concerns about long-term health effects are also an important thing to consider in making the choice to support and consume GM crops. Balancing information and technology is key in the future of agriculture.
Both people for and against GMOs in the US embellish the benefits and risks of GMOs. However many people have expressed their desire to know if the products they want to buy contain GMOs. Several states, including Oregon, Colorado and California, have put GMO labeling provisions on their ballots however none of them have passed. Various reasons explain why labeling efforts have failed. People who are pro-labeling believe that large corporations’ large expenditures are the reason for the labeling failures. Anti-labeling groups state that the increased price of food is what caused voters to be against these measures.
Last week the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is developing a new labeling standard for foods that are GM-free. Labeling would be optional and would be similar to the process for labeling organics but the GM-free crops in this case would not have to be organic. The USDA initiative is a step in the right direction.
GM products are not inherently bad, but people deserve to know what they are putting in their bodies. Until there is more required labeling in the U.S., people will not have all the information about the food they are choosing to purchase.
Contact Asha Brundage-Moore at ashab1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.