Passage by both houses of Congress this month of the first nationwide law to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled was supposed to quell the anti-GMO "food transparency" voices and pre-empt the feared financial disaster that patchwork state-to-state labeling laws could bring with it.
Yet the ink had hardly dried on the 63-to-30 Senate bill, which split Nebraska’s U.S. Senators who argued in voting both for and against that they were doing so to protect farmers, before critics complained it didn't go far enough to guard against the "unknown dangers" of genetic modification. Their issue now? "Genetic editing." It turns out this more-promising form of biotechnology, known as "genetically edited organisms," likely won't fall under the requirements of the new federal legislation.
Here's the difference:
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that have had their genetic material altered by artifically inserting genes from a different species into them. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your stance) example—now shown to be mostly urban myth—was Monsanto's reported attempt to insert genetic material from flounder into tomatoes in order to increase their frost tolerance. That's the kind of shock value biotechnology opponents built into the term "GMO" in order to further their demands for labeling legislation and other regulatory controls.
GEOs are organisms that have had a portion of their DNA altered without including foreign genetics. Made possible by the modern ability to "map" all genes in an organism and identify which of those control both negative and positive traits, genetic editing has proven itself in research and human medicine. Now, aided by easy and cheap technology like the most common, known as Crispr-Cas9, GEO is now being tested in agriculture to precisely edit plant and animal genes to control pests, improve important production traits, and even improve environmental impact.
Unlike past technology that often inserted entire genes or long DNA strands into organisms, Cirspr-Cas9 uses special protein enzymes to snip out only the specific DNA segment that controls the trait in question, replacing it with "knockouts" that repair the DNA minus the specific segment, causing it to either nullify unwanted traits or express desired ones. For instance, phytate is a compound common in corn that reduces a pig's ability to absorb the mineral phosphorus. As a result, much of the phosphorus in pig feed passes through the animal without being used, ending up as a potential pollutant in streams and lakes. Using genetic editing, researchers have been able to snip out the specific gene that causes the final step in phytate production in corn, interrupting the process and creating a corn that will improve phosphorus use and therefore reduce phosphorus pollution.
A recent commentary in the journal Nature Genetics by molecular geneticists from China's Agricultural Genomics Institute argues important differences between GMO and GEO technology mean they should not be regulated the same. As the journal's editors point out in an editorial in the same issue, "A distinction must be established, particularly in the public sphere, between [the two]."
"There is no reason to regulate [GEO]s with gene knockouts or nucleotide variants that either have been documented to exist within crop species or closely related wild species or that can reasonably be expected to arise by spontaneous mutation," the Chinese researchers write. "Because such genetic stocks could in principle...be generated by conventional breeding or random mutagenesis, they should be considered the same as those used in conventional breeding, which are not regulated."
"The potential benefits of [GEO]s should not be impeded as a result of misinformation, so disclosure and education are the best ways to promote sound policies," the journal editors urge. "Scientists will be more trusted if we deploy technology where it is most needed."
In late June, more than 100 Nobel laureates went even further, publishing a letter reprinted by the Washington Post extolling the benefits of biotechnology, demanding Greenpeace end its campaign targeting biotechnology, and calling it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation.
“The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."
But the kind of concensus the scientists call for remains elusive, if comments on the House floor from Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during debate on the new labeling legislation are any indication. McGovern argued the law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want. Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”
The Huffington Post echoed the theme, saying the labeling law "is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs" because it doesn't simply say whether or not a food is “made with genetic engineering.”
“It's very simple," Representative McGovern argued in his floor speech. "The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.”
But as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, this latest confusion over terminology regarding biotechnology is no less nonsensical than the entire broad-brush "GMO" term. An Oklahoma State survey, for instance, showed that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labels on "foods containing DNA.” All foods, except perhaps bottled water, contain DNA. Similar work by the same researchers found consumers were nearly equal in their desire for GMO labeling as they were for labeling fruit ripened by the process of using atmospheric ethylene, the common and completely safe ripening process using the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. Their conclusion? When you start including vague terms on a label, it introduces a level of concern that may have little or nothing to do with the real risks of the process or ingredient being labeled.
The legislation now sits on President Obama's desk. Obama is expected to sign it.