Once upon a time, there was a scientific development called “biotechnology.” As it advanced during the 1980s and 1990s, this new development was often seen as a way to cure world hunger. The debate at first was whether these genetically modified crops would make a difference at all. An article in the Los Angeles Times, published the same the year the Berlin Wall came down, summed up the discussion a quarter century ago:
“One of the great promises of biotechnology is that there will be this second ‘Green Revolution’ and that all the world’s hunger problems will be eliminated,” says Jack Doyle, director of the Agriculture and Biotechnology Project at the Washington-based Friends of the Earth. “The battle in the future will be how it’s packaged: Is it put in a seed? Or does it just become part of a process?”
Hearings in the halls of government and conferences across the world were held over the potential of bioengineered crops. More farmers turned to them during the early 2000s. But instead of being seen as the key to ending famine in the developing world, these crops started to become commercially viable. Companies including Monsanto started to make a mint. And before you know it, the crops became known as UFOs, I mean, GMOs, and the collective freak-out began.
The debate has since morphed and is one that refuses to end: Are foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) the reality as the planet surges to a population of 9 billion people by 2050? Or are the potential risks from GMOs simply too dire to accept them into the world’s supply? Proponents of GMO research and development point out that there is no documented case of anyone becoming ill from GMOs. Opponents counter that their unknown long-term health effects, or what could happen if GMO plants cross-pollinate with other varietals of plants, have simply not garnered enough research. Hence the fight over mandatory GMO labeling here in the U.S. has been a bitter and expensive one — even though such disclosures have long been the standard across the pond in Europe.
But one’s stance on GMOs does not really matter on the labeling front anyway. Four ago, a voter initiative in California that would have mandated GMO labeling died at the ballot box after leading in the polls most of the year (thanks largely to companies like Monsanto, according to news reports). A long fight resulted in Vermont passing a similar labeling law that will take effect this summer. And one of the largest food companies in the U.S. now says it will follow the wishes of the nation’s second least populous state and start disclosing GMO ingredients on its labels.
In a blog post issued last week, a General Mills executive said it made no sense to publish labels solely for a state home to 625,000 people. While a specific date has not yet been given, the Vermont law becomes official on July 1. While insisting that 20 years of research are enough to verify that GMOs pose no health or public safety concern, and pointing out its natural and organic line of brands that include Lara Bar and Annie’s, General Mills says it wants to move beyond this “divisive topic” and get back to business. An official date for when GMO labeling at General Mills will start has not yet been announced.
Watch for other companies to follow suit. Earlier this year, Campbell Soup Co. said it will support federal legislation that establishes a standard for GMO labeling. Other companies, such as Kellogg’s, have struggled with their position on the use of GMOs. While many companies refuse to disclose which ingredients in their supply chain use GMOs, the general consensus is that the matter should not be up to the states, but to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Of course, punting and having the feds wade into the matter is an easy decision to make, since a polarized Congress will be slow to pass any such related legislation any time soon. Last year the House passed a bill that would have prevented state governments from passing any GMO-labeling laws. Another bill (H.R. 1599) was passed by the House last summer, but it is now languishing in the Senate. Opponents of GMO labeling often base their logic on the fact that the FDA has already said that GMOs are safe.
But that argument does not go very far in assuaging much of the American public. Science aside, this genie has long been out of the bottle, and decisions like last fall’s FDA decision to approve the sale of GMO salmon without labeling caused the usual outcry. Sadly, Americans across the political spectrum have an ingrained distrust of government institutions, which is one reason why more consumers are calling for more transparency in their food. But calls by consumers for an honest disclosure only come with the usual corporate response that such labeling will only drive up their costs of doing business.
Nevertheless, at a time when more consumers are becoming more aware of how their food is sourced, the reality is that companies at the forefront of GMO labeling will see an uptick in business — and, most importantly for the long-term, trust.
And in the meantime, as more research and data are released that confirm that these ingredients will not cause a third eye to grow (as has been shouted at me via social media when I tried to write another neutral article on this issue for TriplePundit), the controversy over GMOs will most likely die down. Plus, any concern over litigation should be moot as the FDA has given these companies cover with its stance on these crops. A continued tussle over whether such disclosures should be mandatory or not only makes it sound as if companies have something to hide — and as we all know in this age of 24/7 news coverage and social media, such a task is almost impossible.
Image credit: General Mills (Flickr)