Altered state

Written by Marjie Knust
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To consumers, the nation’s food system is a tangled, confusing web of retailers, processors and farmers. They must decide between an infinite number of labels — gluten-free; all natural; organic; hormone-free; antibiotic-free; sugar-free; cage-free; no trans fat; multigrain; locally made — the list goes on and on. Added to that list in the last few years is GMO, or genetically modified organism, crops.

Although GMO crops, defined as food in which DNA has been altered through the use of biotechnology, have been around for two decades, the safety, sustainability and ethics of their use is becoming an increasing concern among activists and consumers.

“Technology in the food system is something people really worry about,” says Ruth MacDonald, a professor and chair of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Iowa State University. “If it’s got technology in it, people are scared of it.”

Genetic engineering refers to the practice of altering specific characteristics or traits of plants by inserting specific DNA sequences that encode for known traits. The use of this technology allows for more precision than traditional cross-breeding, which involves swapping entire strains of DNA, rather than one specific gene to achieve the desired outcome. Genetic engineering has been used to develop corn that is more resistant to herbicide, pesticide and drought, improving yields and allowing corn to be planted in areas it wouldn’t normally grow well; rice with increased vitamin A, which can be used to combat vitamin A deficiency in children; salmon engineered to grow faster; and apples that do not brown when cut, among others.

While the use of GMO technology in food can potentially save consumers money, decrease the need for herbicide and pesticide, improve nutrients and grow food where it couldn’t normally grow, its complexity, combined with the abundance of sometimes conflicting information available, makes the issue complicated for most consumers. Many had not heard the term GMO until California Prop 37, the GMO labeling bill defeated in 2012.

“Because of labeling concerns, the conversation around GMOs has elevated significantly,” says Cathy Enright, executive director for the Council for Biotechnology Information. “As an industry, biotechnology wasn’t a part of that conversation. We have not done a good job of speaking with consumers and getting information out there. We are thrilled people have an interest in where their food comes from, but there is a lack of understanding that has fueled fear about the use of technology in food.”

Legislation requiring labeling of GMO food was introduced in 26 states this year. This summer, Connecticut voters were the first to approve a law requiring labeling on food containing GMOs, although the law mandates that four other states pass similar legislation before it goes into effect. Only one other state — Maine — has passed a similar law.

“The concern about GMOs is hitting a groundswell because access to information has grown so rapidly,” says Caroline Kinsman, communications manager for the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that works to provide verification for non-GMO products. “But, people don’t know where to begin. There’s a ton of information out there, but the lack of concrete, unbiased research is a concern.”