The Great GE Debate

Colleen Cross
August 28, 2014
Written by
This spring, rumblings in the United States about the labelling of genetically modified, or more precisely, genetically engineered, food products became louder. Because traditional breeding techniques also result in genetic modifications, the term genetically engineered (GE) is seen by some experts as a more precise term to mean genetically modified, genetically modified organism, transgenic, biotech, bioengineered, or products made with modern biotechnology.

GE debate  
Proponents of mandatory GE labelling say consumers have a right to know what is in their food; opponents say it will raise food costs and confuse shoppers without improving health or safety.

 
The April passage in Vermont of An Act Relating to the Labeling of Food Produced With Genetic Engineering has the Canadian baking industry wondering what this and other proposed state and national legislation will mean for those who ship across the border.

This is not a case of simply slapping an extra label on food products that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. It concerns the processes food products undergo before coming to market.

At least 25 states have considered legislation to require labelling GE foods, and a proposed national act, The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, is being looked at. Alaska has passed a law that requires labelling of GE fish sold in the state; Connecticut and Maine have passed bills with limitations; and several other bills are pending. For now, Vermont’s law represents the best example of what process-based labelling looks like in the United States.

Here is how the Vermont government summarizes the legislation: “This act requires food that is intended for human consumption and that is offered for sale on or after July 1, 2016 to be labeled as produced from genetic engineering if the food was entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.”

Genetic engineering processes named in the Vermont legislation are in vitro nucleic acid techniques, and fusion of cells or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive or recombination barriers.

The U.S. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) released a report this spring exploring the pros and cons of mandatory GE labelling of food and feed products, and its scientific, economic and legal implications. CAST consists of scientific societies, individual and student members, and company, non-profit and associate society members. For this report, there was no designated funding from any sponsors and its chair, author and reviewers all served as volunteers.

The report emphasizes the already wide reach of genetic engineering in the U.S. food and feed industry, citing a Cornell University study that says at least 70 per cent of processed food items in supermarkets contain at least one ingredient derived from a GE crop. Soybean, canola, cotton and corn crops are the most widely known GE crops to yield food ingredients; for example, in 2000, about 60 per cent of the U.S. soybean crops were GE.

The report touches on three themes: public opinion, consumer choice and the right to know. Considering the pros and cons of each is rather like riding a seesaw. Many Americans support mandatory labelling when pointedly asked; however, more than 99 per cent of people answering unprompted polls do not voluntarily support the practice. It’s all in how the question is posed.

As for consumer choice, proponents say people should be allowed to vote with their wallets. However, they already have that option through such voluntary non-GE and organic labelling initiatives such as the Non-GMO Project and the Whole Foods initiative of 2013, the latter of which requires all products sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores to be labelled to indicate if they contain genetically modified ingredients.

The report distinguishes between the right to know what is in food and the right to know how it was produced. On one hand, proponents of mandatory GE labelling say consumers have a right to know what is in their food; on the other, opponents think such a label will increase the cost of food and confuse consumers without improving health or safety. In this emotional issue, and with consumer lobby groups pitted against industry, it feels like never the twain shall meet.

The Science
Requiring GE labels singles out GE from other methods and processes not being mandated, such as the use of herbicides or free-range conditions, says the CAST report.

It is important to remember that the FDA, the body responsible for labelling in the U.S., has not found that GE foods “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new technique present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding,” says the paper. Also, scientific authorities have not deemed GE food unsafe to humans or the environment. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association have affirmed that genetic engineering poses no new or different risks to food safety.

Canada echoes this stance, and because GE foods have not been deemed unsafe for human consumption, they do not fall under its labelling guidelines, says Gary Holub, a spokesperson for Health Canada. Canada allows voluntary labelling and advertising of foods, whether or not they are products of genetic engineering. Food products are labelled for nutritional and health purposes, like identifying allergens, says Holub.

Potential legal Challenges
Mandatory labelling is likely to face legal challenges, says the CAST report. The U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause says a law may not “discriminate against out-of-state products or unduly burden interstate commerce.” The Supremacy Clause and Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act pre-emption prohibits states from imposing labelling requirements that differ from those of the FDA. But the First Amendment Protection of Commercial Speech may prove the most useful to opponents of the law. It was used to stop Vermont from applying mandatory labelling for a process used on dairies in the production of milk. In that case, the federal court overruled the state’s decision to label on the grounds that satisfying customer curiosity was not a strong enough reason to compel labelling.

“If the United States were to mandate labeling of GE food, the United States would have to show a scientific health threat in order to be in compliance with international trade law,” says the CAST report. Canada and Mexico could potentially challenge a U.S. GE labeling law, just as they challenged U.S. laws on Country of Origin Labelling.

Paul Hetherington, president and chief executive officer of the Baking Association of Canada (BAC), wonders if such a challenge would be effective. “I am not a legal expert. But I think it’s more difficult to exert an external challenge into another jurisdiction if they are applying those laws domestically as well as internationally. In this case, it’s bad but being equally applied to everyone.”

Decisions for manufacturers
Hetherington and the BAC have been watching these legislative developments very closely. If the Vermont legislation stands up to current appeals, it would create hurdles for all food manufacturers, he says. Food manufacturers must look at the cost of adjusting their labels and decide whether or not to adjust them for one or all markets. Alternatively, they may decide comply by reformulating their products.

“It’s one continuous run and I don’t have to stop the line and gear up from selling 10,000 widgets into Vermont versus 20 million in the rest of the country,” says Hetherington. There is also a third option of not selling into that market. Costs will depend on how food producers decide to proceed.

While the BAC does not have an official position on labelling of GE foods, its position on the potential entry of GE wheat into the marketplace highlights the principle of choice. The association defers to regulators to declare such wheat safe for the environment and for consumption, he says. “But as an industry, we feel very strongly that we need to have choice in the marketplace. So if a GMO wheat were to be introduced, we’d want to have a choice between a GMO variety and a non-GMO variety. We also believe that any segregation costs associated with GM wheat should be applied to the GMO variety.”

Ironically, the result of these process-based labelling initiatives may be less choice for the consumer. A Washington, D.C., study of countries that have adopted process labelling, indicates that where mandatory labelling has been imposed, GE products have been removed from the shelves, resulting in less choice for consumers. Another consideration is that labelling conventional products may effectively raise the price for all consumers and most adversely affect poor and older consumers, the CAST report suggests.

“It’s not just a jurisdictional government initiative,” says Hetherington. “There are consumer-based groups out there making these demands. I think it’s going to be important to all companies to keep this issue very much on their radar.”

CAST report conclusions
The U.S. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology’s report exploring the pros and cons of mandatory GE labelling of food offered five conclusions:
  1. There is no science-based reason to single out GE foods and feeds for mandatory process-based labelling.
  2. Mandatory labelling based on process abandons the traditional U.S. practice of providing for consumer food preferences through voluntary product differentiation and labelling.
  3. Market-driven voluntary labelling measures are currently providing consumers with non-GE choices.
  4. Mandatory labelling could have negative implications for First Amendment rights and trade issues.
  5. Mandatory labelling will increase food costs.

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