Genetic engineering (GE) refers to a set of technologies used to change the genetic make-up of cells to produce novel organisms that exhibit a desired trait, such as plants that are herbicide resistant or able to produce their own pesticides. This technology has found a foot hold in the American food and farming system; more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, and canola grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. GE crops, also referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are now commonplace on supermarket shelves.
GE crops are typically grown with chemicals that are toxic to our environment and to people. By purchasing GE foods, we inadvertently contribute to a system of farming that is unhealthy for us and the planet. Unfortunately, we have little way of knowing if we are buying GE foods, as grocery manufacturers and biotech firms have successfully lobbied against transparent labeling.
In December 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the final GE food labeling rules needed to implement the National Bioengineered Foods Disclosure Law. Unfortunately, the law prohibits the widely known terms “GE” and “GMO” on labels, and instead only permits the use of the term, “bioengineered,” which is unfamiliar to most consumers.
Additionally, instead of requiring clear, on-package labeling in the form of text or a neutral symbol, the final regulation allows companies to use digital QR codes, text messages, or a digital link, making this information harder to access.
Finally, the law will leave many GE foods unlabeled, since it does not apply to foods such as meat, milk, and eggs derived from animals fed GE forage or grain or those considered a “highly refined product” like sugar or oil derived from biotech crops.
Half of U.S. farmers have weeds resistant to the most commonly used herbicides. In response, biotech companies are working to produce new GE plant varieties that will be resistant to more potent chemicals putting us on an unsustainable chemical treadmill.
Organic and conventional farmers that choose not to grow GE plants are at a distinct disadvantage. Their crops can be contaminated by GE pollen or chemical drift. Farmers often have no recourse for these damages.
We can do better. We can ask our policy makers to invest in organic and sustainable systems, to require the USDA to conduct a complete environmental impact study (including social and economic impacts on organic and non-GE farming systems and markets) prior to deregulation of GE crops, and to require that the burden and cost of GE contamination be shouldered by those using GE technologies.