In mid-September, self-confessed GMO skeptic Jon Entine publish an article on Forbes that declared an end to the GMO debate following the release of an exhaustive survey of animal feeding studies— all of which showed GMO feed to be safe for animals. But in spite of his declaration, the GMO debate is still going as strong as ever.
The focus of the debate, however, has started to shift from safety to transparency— a metamorphosis that had begun even before Entine's article was published. The loudest question advocates are now asking is not “are GMOs safe for consumers to eat,” but rather “are consumers as informed as they should be with regard to this new food technology?”
The Proliferation of GMOs
In the US, most GMOs are plants with altered DNA that enable them to provide higher nutrient content and/or resisting pests. Business Insider reports that, in 2012, 88 percent of all corn planted and 93 percent of all soybeans were GMOs. In addition, 80 percent of packaged foods sold in the United States contain GMOs.
The Public Is Uninformed
A recent Jimmy Kimmel segment drew attention to an issue that is simultaneously comical and frightening: consumers who are staunchly against GMOs don't actually know what GMOs are. Kimmel questioned multiple consumers outside of a California farmer's market and learned that, although many of claimed to be avoiding GMOs, few could explain what it was they were abstaining from.
To compound the problem, few consumers are aware of the research that has been done on GMOs before they are brought to market. Multiple studies, including those cited by Entine, have concluded that GMOs—whether indirectly ingested from animals fed on GM feeds or directly from modified produce— pose no health risks to humans. Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, although it is impossible to know for sure if GMOs or, indeed, any other consumable item is completely safe, the most recent studies have, once again, confirmed with nearly irrefutable evidence the safety of GM foods.
A Significant Impediment to Food Innovation
Despite vocal arguments and heavy lobbying against genetic modification, the utility of these products make it unlikely that GMOs will disappear from our fields or our tables any time soon. And detractors have begun to realize this.
The real problem for food manufactures lies not in proving the safety of foods that contain GMOs, but in the public's lack of education. Basing their argument in favor of labeling on the fact that it is transparency— not safety— which is central to this debate, GMO detractors claim that consumers have a right to know what is in their foods.
Consumers, repeating the arguments of these vocal lobbyists and anti-GMO non-profits, are adding their voices to demands that manufactures publically disclose on their labels the presence any GM ingredients. Usually, this would be no problem. Ingredients like seasoning and sodium are already listed on the label of foods and cause no great harm to sales and profitability.
Given the prevailing opinions about GMO, however, disclosing the presence of genetically-modified ingredients publically could (And very likely would) lead the uninformed consumer to avoid their purchase.
Given the proliferation of GM products, and the strictness of the proposed labeling, it would require a considerable investment for food manufacturers to create products entirely devoid of GMOs.
What Innovators Must Do
As long as the most vocal voices on GMOs are those of detractors, the uncertainty surrounding GMOs isn't likely to disappear any time soon.
Innovators in the industry must take a more direct role in educating consumers on what GMOs are and the credible research that has been done around them, showing that they are not simply safe to consume—but a necessary step in the path toward sustainability.
Consumer's lack of education about GMOs leads to unnecessary fear which can create to suspicion and doubt among consumers. By educating consumers on new food technology, agricultural companies and food manufacturers may be able to calm consumers' fears and rebuild trust.
Perhaps then GMO could become just another data point on a nutrition label.