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By R. Scott Rappold
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH
Oct. 8, 2014 -- Pick up a packaged product in any grocery store aisle in Colorado, and you can read the label to see if it has trans fat, high-fructose corn syrup, or any other ingredients health enthusiasts might want to avoid.
But should labels say whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were used in the making of food? GMOs have been used in the U.S. for almost 20 years to grow bigger crops that are more resistant to pests and weeds.
Large-scale food agricultural companies inject seeds with genes from other plants to produce pesticide-resistant crops and to help the plants create their own insecticide.
Up to 90% of the corn, soybeans, and sugar beets (used for sugar production) grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Corn is found in a variety of foods, including high-fructose corn syrup, and is also used to feed meat-producing animals.
The GMO labeling question is one of the most debated issues in food safety across the world -- and this fall, voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide if their states should require the labels.
Many people don't know what GMOs are. But with millions of dollars flowing into both states to fight and support the ballot measures, they're about to find out.
GMOs in Wide-Scale Use
Two years ago, Larry Cooper, a Denver-area small business owner and community activist, had never heard of GMOs.
"When I found out, I was shocked what was in my food and what we were giving to my grandkids," he says. Cooper now co-chairs Right to Know Colorado, the group backing Proposition 105 in the November election.
The proposition wouldn't ban GMOs in Colorado, but it would require that foods with GMOs sold in the state have the words "produced with genetic engineering" on a clear and visible place on their labels by July 2016. Restaurant food, meat from animals that have not been genetically engineered, and alcoholic drinks would be exempt.
The FDA in 1992 said genetically-modified crops are no different than regular crops and did not need to be labeled. The agency hasn't changed its stance.
"Why isn't this labelled in the ingredients already? Why wouldn't they [certain food companies] want to label GMOs?" Cooper wonders. "I just don't understand that. What are these companies hiding? Why do they want to leave me in the dark and not let me know what I'm eating?"
Too Many Unknowns
The debate over GMOs is centered on the unknowns of a relatively new process.
The National Academy of Sciences has convened several independent panels over the years to review GMO research, and they found no evidence that eating genetically modified food impacts people's health.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science agrees, but the organization said in a 2012 statement that all new genetically modified crops must get tested to show any new proteins added from the parent crop are neither toxic nor allergenic.
Research that claims to show health impacts of eating GMOs has been roundly criticized. When French scientists released a study in 2012 claiming rats that ate modified maize were getting tumors and dying early, other scientists attacked it as flawed, with too few rats tested and using ones already prone to tumors later in life. The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted the study, though it has since been republished.
Still, there's been enough concern about the unknowns that 60 countries across the globe, including the European Union, require GMO labels. One of the main concerns is for people with food allergies, that taking genes from one plant to another could sicken someone who doesn't know what they're eating.
Others worry about antibiotic-resistant genes being passed into gut bacteria. Research has shown tiny amounts of DNA from genetically modified food can survive digestion, but scientists found no evidence it is passed into the DNA of the consumer or into bacteria in the stomach. Still, scientists say much is still not understood, and they've called for new research. There's also concern that widespread use of GMOs could lead to more resistant weeds, insects, and diseases.
Some animal studies suggest GMOs may damage the liver, kidneys, and immune system, Consumer Reports says. If there's any widespread scientific agreement, it's that more study is needed.
In the meantime, the fight to label GMOs is largely being carried out by non-scientists like Cooper, who says he's skeptical about GMO research, because much of it is funded by the industry.
"One side says it's safe. One side says it's absolutely not safe," he says. "I don't know if it's safe myself, but I want to know if goods contain GMOs so I can make an informed decision."
Cooper says he's not affiliated with any natural-foods company.
Food Fight Coming
Colorado's constitution makes it easier than in many other states to get citizen-driven initiatives on the ballot. The state is often used as a test case for broad national issues, such as legalizing marijuana.
When California and Washington both voted on GMO labeling in recent years, agri-business and food makers poured millions into opposition campaigns, far outspending the natural-food companies and activists who supported the ballot measures. Both failed at the polls.
Colorado seems headed for a similar fight. As Sept. 29, a group opposed to GMO labels, the "No on 105" Coalition, had raised $9.7 million, including $4.7 million from Monsanto, $500,000 from PepsiCo, $345,000 from J.M. Smucker Co., $250,000 from ConAgra Foods, and $200,000 from Smithfield Foods.
The Right to Know Colorado campaign, meanwhile, had raised nearly $321,000, its largest donations including $75,000 from Food Democracy Action, $25,000 from the Organic Consumers Fund, and lesser amounts from individuals and natural-food companies.
Why is there so much opposition from the industry to GMO labels?
One of the biggest concerns is the impact to grocery bills. If companies have to separate GMO-labeled products headed for a particular state, they will increase prices that could add $400 to a family's annual grocery bill, says Martina Newell-McGloughlin. She's a biotechnology professor at University of California, Davis, who is working with the No on 105 group.
"This cost comes at no value to the consumer, because those that really want to have a non-GMO option, you already have it," she says. "You can buy organics. You can buy non-GMO labelled [food]. This is putting a tax on regular people who are already satisfied with the requirements of the FDA."
Colorado lawmakers agree about an impact to grocery bills. The legislative committee that draws up the official voter guide changed phrasing that it "could" increase grocery costs to it "will."
Newell-McGloughlin says the industry is also concerned customers will see labels as a warning, so companies will most likely only ship non-GMO products to Colorado, further increasing grocery bills.
"We've been genetically modifying plants for 10,000 years," she says, referring to longtime crop breeding processes. "The only difference now is we can do it with more precise science."
But critics point to the difference between traditional selective breeding of the same plant vs. transferring DNA among organisms that have fewer similarities, which has only been going on for two decades.
Other States Taking Action
When Vermont's legislature passed a GMO labeling law in April, lawmakers included a $1.5 million legal defense fund, so assured were they of a lawsuit. Not long after, four industry groups sued, saying the FDA has "confirmed the safety of more than 100 genetically engineered crops for human consumption" since 1994. The law is scheduled to take effect July 1, 2016, but in the meantime Vermont officials are bracing for a lengthy legal battle. No trial date has been set.
Elsewhere, Maine and Connecticut have passed GMO labeling laws, but they only go into effect if enough neighboring states also pass such laws.
Some industry observers have speculated that the state-by-state approach on GMO labels has the ultimate goal of propelling the FDA and agri-business to come up with a labeling standard.
"We could have as many as five states by the end of this year with mandatory labeling," Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety, told The Los Angeles Times. "Is the FDA going to allow them to dictate national policy, or will they step in with a federal blueprint? I suspect we are not going to see a patchwork go on much longer before the feds step in."
For his part, Cooper, co-chair of the Right to Know Colorado campaign, says people in his state "really care about their health, and I think we want to make informed decisions about the foods we eat -- and we're lucky to live in a country where you have a wide variety of foods."
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