Government Wants to Regulate 'GMO', but They Don’t Know What it Means

Government Wants to Regulate 'GMO', but They Don’t Know What it Means
AP Photo/J. David Ake, File
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Beginning in 2015, the makers of KIND snack bars found themselves in what would become a drawn out legal battle. This March, the latest drama unfolded regarding a class action lawsuit involving the use of “non-GMO” labels on their products. This lawsuit has been in a standstill due to a lack of consensus regarding what a genetically modified organism (GMO) is. If the food industry and government cannot come to a consensus about what is a GMO and what isn’t, labeling should certainly not be federally mandated.

In 2016, then president Barack Obama signed a mandatory GMO labeling law. Surprisingly, this law passed with bipartisan support, most likely because it undid stricter requirements that had recently went into effect in Vermont. Vermont’s law required that all labels be clear and in printed English, while the federal law allows for less conventional versions including scannable codes and phone numbers that consumers can call to get more information. Although Vermont’s law only applied to one state in theory, food producers most likely would have had to overhaul their production nationwide in order to prevent fines and unnecessary costs — thus laying the ground for federal action.

In essence, Vermont’s law would have determined food labeling policy for the rest of the U.S. Since the federal law voids the state law, the federal law empowered the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to determine the exact requirements as to what needs to be labeled. The requirements are expected to be released by this summer.

The primary issue with the new labeling law is that it paints all genetically modified food as the same, when there are many differences and nuances. According to the USDA, GMO refers to crops that are modified with naturally occurring traits either through genetic engineering or more traditional methods. Genetic engineering is defined as rearranging, eliminating, or introducing genes in order to get a desired trait. Therefore, according to the USDA, any crop that is genetically engineered, falls under the label of GMO.

But at the end of March, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would not regulate foods created with CRISPR technology because it utilizes “traditional methods” of gene editing. This technology uses bacteria to remove sequences of DNA in order to eliminate certain traits that are undesirable. Thus, the USDA contradicted its previous definition of GMOs. CRISPR technology was first used on plants in 2013, which hardly qualifies it as a traditional method. Even if it were traditional, by the USDA’s own definition this would not exclude it from the GMO category. According to the USDA, CRISPR technology should be considered a form of genetic engineering and food products created with it should be considered GMOs under these definitions.

The reason behind not categorizing CRISPR crops as GMOs is actually that the USDA cannot tell the difference between crops created with the new technology and those created using traditional methods. This points out one of the major shortcoming on GMO regulation, which is that the people making the rules do not understand what they are making rules about.

Apart from the law being based on faulty definitions, it does little to inform consumers. Even though foods are required to be labeled, the labeling can take many forms, one of which is a QR code. In order for consumers to read the QR code, they would need to scan it with a smart device to receive information on the ingredients. This fails to improve consumer information, since people are unlikely to scan all of their food to check for GMOs.

Of over 1,000 adults surveyed in 2016, only 15 percent regularly scanned QR codes in order to find information about a product's ingredients or nutritional value. While 49 percent said they would be less likely to purchase a food item containing GMOs, 59 percent said they would be unlikely to scan a QR code in order to gain that information.

Mandatory labeling of GMOs makes no sense both from the technical side and from the practical. The definition of GMOs is misunderstood even by the organization who made them. This lack of understanding translates into a sloppy policy that does little to inform consumers. Examining the regulation of GMOs highlights a truth, which is the government cannot regulate what it does not understand.

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