The Future of Genetic Engineering

When projecting the development of genetically engineered foods, we first acknowledge that no one really knows what we might find on grocery shelves in the future.

It does seem likely, however, that consumers will not be given much information about their food products.

Last week, the U.S. Senate, by a vote of 63-30, passed a bill to establish a uniform national standard for labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients.

Everyone supports a national standard for food labels. There’s nothing good about having each state require unique labels.

This legislation, however, provides a deeply flawed national standard for labels.

  • It does not penalize non-compliance, making it essentially voluntary.
  • It does not require simple, on-package labels, but allows the use of QR codes that can only be read with a smartphone.
  • It defines GE foods in a way that exempts a great many foods, as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration noted.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said, “Here is a so-called labeling bill, but in fact it does the opposite…this so-called mandatory labeling bill isn’t mandatory, doesn’t label, and it excludes most GMO foods.”

The primary effect of the bill, then, is to preempt related state regulation in favor of this federal non-response to widespread consumer interest in knowing about their food.

The Senate bill now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, which had already passed similar legislation and very likely will support the Senate’s version. The margin of approval appears to be enough to override a presidential veto.

What will GE technology produce in the future? We have already heard of so-called Arctic Apples that don’t turn brown as they age, crops that have chemical pesticides added internally, and several crops that are resistant to synthetic chemical weed killers. Each new food requires federal approval before it can be marketed, but approval is based on the producer’s own testing.

Recent advances in genetic engineering technology called CRISPR can be used to modify organisms by editing existing genes. This technology has enabled faster and cheaper tinkering with both flora and fauna: reportedly, a high school student with a little training and inexpensive lab resources could edit genes.

The products of gene editing do not involve the addition of foreign DNA and therefore do not require federal approval. Apparently, gene-edited foods also will not require labeling to indicate how they differ from natural foods.

The competitive marketplace will be the principal control over our food supplies. That could lead to interesting and valuable results. When novel products become popular (and some probably will), their prices will rise. There have been claims that labeling GE foods as such would increase prices, but those claims were never shown to be accurate.

Federal regulations already control which foods can be labeled as organic, and do not allow GE foods to be identified as organic. It remains to be seen whether foods with edited genes could be identified as organic. For now, consumers who are wary of foods that have been engineered, one way or another, should buy only foods that are labeled as organic.

Shortly after I wrote this column, and before its publication, the U.S. House of Representatives approved this legislation, sending it to President Obama to sign or veto. The “inside”word was that he was prepared to sign the legislation, despite an early campaign commitment to label genetically engineered foods.

This legislation takes the form of an amendment to a larger bill that addresses other, unrelated issues. In fact, the larger bill, S.764, is described as “a bill to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act, and for other purposes.”

Apparently, the bill is a sort of catch-all, intended to combine desirable and undesirable actions (depending on one’s perspective).

So, this shameful legislation could become law, and could sustain a long-term confrontation between consumer and corporate interests.

Those interested in this public policy issue could enjoy reading the article Kurt Cobb’s recent article, GMO industry: The dumbest guys in the room, from Resource Insights.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *