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There's no other food subject that gives rise to the level of controversy than genetically modified foods (GMOs). There are so many factions. On the one hand are the creators of the raw ingredients, such as Monsanto, who sell their products to the farmers. There are the food manufacturers and then, of course, the consumer. Emotions run very high from every quarter, with each vocally defending their position.
There are four main players in this issue:
In Europe clear guidelines have been mandated regarding the labeling of products that contain GMO ingredients. While the E.U. initially banned production and use of all GMO crops, they now have a detailed registration process that manufacturers and growers must complete. The compromise is one that was felt to protect the consumer by allowing them to know what is in the food they are eating.
There is no such requirement here in the U.S., however. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has rigorously opposed not only any requirement but even allowing this on labels voluntarily. Their posture is that such information will confuse the consumer and indicate that foods that don't carry a "Non-GMO" label are somehow inferior.
The good news is that the U.S. and Canadian governments do not allow manufacturers to label something 100% organic if that food has been genetically modified or has been fed genetically modified feed. Part of the problem is that GMOs are in so many foods now that it's impossible to know whether the food contains GMOs or not except for those with an organic designation. Even then, organic farmers are being challenged (as will be noted below) because of pollen drift from GMO fields which can contaminate their crops.
There is clear evidence now that the genes can transfer to other organisms. One study demonstrated horizontal transfer to the bacteria growing in human intestines. In a worst case scenario transfer of the BT gene that produces a natural pesticide could cause our own intestines to make that pesticide.
The sheer wealth and size of the seed providers gives them incredible control over prices and farmers. This is because the farmers don't really purchase the seed in the conventional sense any longer. In the past a farmer could buy seed and grow a crop, reserving some of the resulting seed for the next season's plantings. The seeds sold now are under a contract that prohibits farmers from farming this way. They must purchase the seeds each year. The second issue is that the farmers who don't use the seeds face a market in which their fellow farmers, growing GMO crops, have higher yields which force prices down.
One of the most common genetic modifications is a gene that renders the crop resistant to Monsanto's herb killer, RoundUp. Farmers are able to spray their fields and not worry about killing their cash crop grown with the gene. Even seeds sold by providers other than Monsanto are more expensive, because the gene has been licensed thus guaranteeing the use of RoundUp. While the story has been that this will provide improved crop yields as well as lower pesticide and herbicide use, that doesn't appear to have come to pass as of yet. It appears, in fact, that there has actually been an increase in the use of chemical pesticides.
Organic farmers are concerned because of transfer of genetic material to organic crops. While this has been limited, it has been demonstrated to occur. Likewise some of the natural pesticides that they have used have now been inserted into GMO seeds, resulting in the potential loss of natural tools they have to fight pests.
In defense of grocers and other retailers, they are squeezed by the consumer's desire for the lowest possible prices on their food. Those foods with GMOs are generally cheaper because of the higher yields, and thus they are the choice of manufacturers in competition for money at the cash register.
They have not, however, allowed the debate to come to the grocery store shelf. Working in concert with the seed providers, the grocery manufacturers have taken the posture that since there's nothing wrong with these seeds, there's no reason to label groceries as to whether they contain GMOs or not. One reason suggested for the desire to keep labeling off packages is that many foods might be contaminated that are not supposed to be and are therefore cause for litigation. At the same time the grocery manufacturers assume that consumers won't purchase products containing GMOs, thus affecting sales.
Much has already been said about this group. They are businesses and in interviews say that they believe that their products are safe. Billions are at stake, however, so it's clear that they have a motivation to press forward quickly.
That said, they now have a tremendous amount of control: the top three companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) account for 47% of the worldwide proprietary seed market. Because these are genetic modifications at the molecular level, the seeds are patented. The seed companies thus own the seeds and "license" them to farmers. They also license the technology to other seed companies and that increases the control of the top three even more. There are estimates that put Monsanto controlling up to 87% of the total crops devoted to genetically engineered seeds in 2007. With those kinds of numbers it's a challenge for any other company to effectively compete.
The situation has not been as well studied as many would like, and we just don't know what the effect of eating GMO foods can be. Some of this is because there's so much money at stake. For now, the only way for you to be assured that you are not consuming genetically modified foods is to select organic products.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
April 12, 2010
Last updated: 04/12/10