This past month I’ve found myself neck deep in thinking and talking about genetic engineering. Not about the science, but about the current state of affairs. Recently the unrestricted approval of Round-Up Ready alfalfa, the legal battles around sugar beets, and the pending approval of genetically engineered (GE) salmon have brought the uncertainties, dangers and influence of such technology back into focus, renewing discussions about how to protect ourselves and our future.
Did you know that 27 countries of the European Union plus 31 other countries have laws and/or regulations about labeling GE crops and food products? Only four countries of those with labeling laws allow voluntary labeling. The remaining countries require mandatory labeling, which requires all or parts of the supply chain to label raw agricultural ingredients or finished food products with a phrase or mark that indicates that the product may contain, contains, or is derived from genetically engineered crops. Of course, the United States is not one of these countries, though the state of Alaska enacted a law in 2006 that requires the labeling of genetically engineered fish and fish products.
I’m sure you can guess that it is the original countries that produced and exported GE crops—the United States, Canada and Argentina—which either don’t allow labeling or have adopted voluntary labeling approaches. And the first countries to adopt mandatory labeling requirements and ban production of GM crops (or allow in only very limited areas) were the large importers—the EU and Japan. Today there are developing countries that have some form of labeling laws and even countries like Brazil and China that are among the top ten countries with GE crop production.
There is no one international agreement on these labeling laws. The variations include tolerance levels, whether the crop was grown from GE seeds or the end product was tested for residues, all or some ingredients and/or packaged products, all forms of GE crops or those with “novel” characteristics. For 18 years a debate on whether national laws on labeling GE foods should be allowed has raged in a little known international body called the Codex Alimentarius. Early this May, a document was finally approved, but it does not provide any specific guidance. It only provides some protection for a country with a GE labeling law from accusations that such laws were barriers to trade—a small step forward.
Is labeling the answer? Certainly in Europe the GE labeling law has curtailed the use of GE seeds (although not eliminated all production) and the use of ingredients from GE crops (except in animal feed). Could this be possible in the United States now with 165 million acres of GE crops planted? Polls of U.S. consumers indicate that the majority favor labeling. But would they stop purchasing GE foods if they were labeled?
Although it’s neither a perfect nor the only solution, labeling of GE foods is one approach. The Center for Food Safety (www.centerforfoodsafety.org) has launched a campaign for labeling GE foods, and IFOAM is collaborating with other organizations to organize a march from New York to Washington, DC, to raise awareness and gather consumer support for the labeling campaign (www.right2knowmarch.org).
A multi-faceted, unified strategy to control GE production is needed, and organic, non-GMO, environmental and consumer groups are coming together to build that plan. Hopefully all the talking and thinking will lead to swift decisions and action.
Katherine DiMatteo is managing partner and senior associate at Wolf, DiMatteo and Associates, a consulting service specializing in organic and sustainable practices. She was the former executive director of the Organic Trade Association and was instrumental in shaping the outcome of the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP) Standards and securing Congressional support. She also helped shape the UN Codex Guidelines for Organic and the Global Organic Textile Standards. Katherine was a founding member and Secretary of the Board of The Organic Center and currently serves as the President of the Board of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements World Board.