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Labeling Genetically Modified Organisms

Updated on May 7, 2013

GMOs, genetically modified organisms, have generated a good deal of press over the last year or so, in large part due to spirited efforts and debate around the country to require labeling of foods containing these products.

What are GMOs?

Unlike a hybridized plant, created through selective pollination and breeding, GMOs are created in a laboratory using biotechnology techniques to splice genes and merge DNA from different species. This can create plants with specific traits intended to increase production or hardiness. This includes not only genes that can help provide an advantage but also in some cases plants that produce their own pesticide or are created to withstand certain pesticides used to kills weeds. While new products continue to come onto the market, GMOs have been in some of the food Americans eat for the better part of two decades. In the United States today roughly 90% of the corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets and soy grown are genetically modified. Many of these plants or parts of these plants go into a number of products eaten every day by Americans.

Benefits and Risks

The benefits and risks of GMOs are hotly debated. The biotech industry argues that genetic modification is the answer to feeding an increasing global population by way of more productive and adaptable crop yields and that labeling would add an additional financial burden to buyers. Proponents of labeling argues that idea of additional cost in labeling is unfounded and that a lack of testing leaves the prospect of potential health risks by eating GMOs murky while the increased use of pesticides associated with these crops continues to damage the health of our planet. Concerns have also been voiced about the biotech industries who “own” these crops. Because the plants have been created in a lab the companies that made them own the patent, meaning farmers who use GMO seeds need to purchase them every year and cannot save the seeds from one year’s crop to use the next. Failure to do so often leads to litigation.

Labeling GMOs

The bottom line in the growing discussion and efforts to label GMO products is the argument that people have a right to know what is in the food they purchase. It seems like a simple idea, but is tied up in a much more complex story. Labeling would allow consumers to make a personal choice whether to purchase products containing GMOs or not. Currently the only way to ensure that a product is GMO-free is to purchase organic or Non-GMO Verified products. Around the world, sixty-one countries currently require labeling of GMOs in food. The issue came to a head in the fall of 2012 in California with Proposition 37, requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods. A narrow defeat of the bill after biotech and food giants pumped millions of dollars into negative advertising did not slow the momentum of the movement. If anything, momentum only increased. A number of states across the country have now begun dialogue or have introduced bills aimed at labeling GMOs. In Washington State this fall voters will decide on ballot initiative I-522, which would require GMO labeling. At a national level, in late April 2013 the bipartisan Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was introduced, putting the issue on the table in Congress in a meaningful way.

Regardless of how the votes play out this fall, the debate raging across the country over GMOs, their safety, and whether to label them is unlikely to die down. If anything, it is a movement that continues to gain momentum and may well ultimately see results. At its most basic level - outside of the money and politics, information and disinformation, is the question of whether Americans, with all our freedoms and rights, have the right to know what is in the food they are eating.


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