Genetic researchers claim they have more than 20 years of data proving there is no significant food safety risk in consuming genetically modified organisms (GMO). And yet, the consuming public isn’t buying – they’re not buying what the researchers say or the labeled GMO food products.

Mark Squires, president of Good Earth Natural Foods, headquartered in Fairfax, California, said he doesn’t want GMOs on his store’s shelves and if he becomes aware of any containing GMOs, he labels them as such. “The sales for those products drop precipitously,” he said. “My customers don’t want them.”

It’s not just homemakers turning up their noses. The European community is not interested in buying the United States’ GMO grain. China is antsy about GMOs. With better than nine of every 10 bushels of U.S.-produced corn and soybeans being from GMO lines, farmers in the Northeast who produce grain for export need to keep an eye on market trends.

Even labeling GMO products as such is controversial. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this past July to block state GMO labeling laws that Maine, Connecticut and Vermont had drafted.

Public perception or science?

Clearly, opposition to GMOs is driven by public perception rather than science. It should come as no surprise then that when a democratic government seems unresponsive to the desires of its citizens, outcry will surely follow.

“The issue is so politicized,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California-Davis animal genetics Cooperative Extension specialist. “The science is really clear, and yet people believe otherwise.”

It hasn’t always been that way.

Consider that U.S consumers have been purchasing, preparing, eating and wearing goods that have been GMO-derived for more than 20 years. It is also worth noting the first GMO introduced in the U.S. was an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant in 1986.

Eight years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first human GMO food product, the Flavr Savr tomato. It is a tomato engineered to be rot-resistant to extend its shelf life. Consumer response then was positive, though the tomato’s patent holder was unable to turn a profit, owing to high production and distribution costs.

Times have changed, however. In November 2015, the FDA approved the first genetically engineered (GE) animal for use as a human food: the AquAdvantage salmon, modified to grow much faster and larger than farm-raised salmon. Dubbed the “Frankenfish” by the popular press and a number food safety groups, opponents gathered more than 1 million signatures opposing its entry into the U.S. market.

FDA officials – in its November 2015 Consumer Update (http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/UCM473578.pdf) – chose science over expressed public desires. “After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any nongenetically engineered Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.”

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. farmers quietly adopted herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant field crops. For them, genetically engineered seed significantly reduces their weed and insect control costs.

GE field crop seed first entered U.S. markets in 1996. Today, it dominates the domestic corn, soybean and cotton markets. According to National Agricultural Statistics Service data:

  • 92 percent of the 2015 U.S. corn crop’s seed is GE.
  • 94 percent of the 2015 U.S. soybean crop’s seed is GE.
  • 90 percent of the 2015 U.S. canola crop’s seed is GE.
  • 94 percent of the 2015 U.S. cotton crop’s seed is GE.

One of the questions these numbers raise about so large a share of U.S. feed grains coming from GE seed is how many food products would be labeled as GMOs in grocery stores if a federal mandatory labeling law were passed in Washington, D.C.?

If consumers balk at GMOs, what would the impact be on grain markets?

Seeds of distrust

In 1992, the FDA released a statement creating an industry-assisted approval process to determine the safety of GE food products. “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the producer of a new food to evaluate the safety of the food and assure that the safety requirement of section 402(a)(1) of the act is met.”

In short, patent holders will provide safety data to the FDA for the agency to review. Though many believe the process seems to be too easily compromised, it is similar to the way the FDA conducts its new drug approval process.

Pharmaceutical companies provide the drug’s research and development data, as well as the structure and findings of the laboratory and clinical trials they conducted. The FDA reviews that data – as well as ongoing and existing research – on the way to determining if the claims the companies make about their offerings are accurate.

Five years after unveiling its approval process, FDA officials publicly stated the agency could find no discernible difference between GMO-derived and conventional foods. It frequently applied similar language to its written approvals of many of the GMOs now on the market.

Between the review process it devised in 1992 and still uses today, and its 1997 public statement, it is not hard to see why consumers might think the FDA is playing it a little too cozy with the industry. It could also explain why there is such a huge disconnect between consumer perception of GMOs and the science that evaluates and creates them.

Barrier to entry

Despite public perceptions to the contrary, GMO patent holders did not gain much traction against the FDA’s GMO approval process. The average time it takes to secure approval from the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA is about seven years, and the cost – from application to approval – is generally believed to be about $130 million.

Van Eenennaam decried the process. “After 20 years of data,” she said, “why do we need a $130 million process every time we introduce a new Bt (insect-resistant) product?”

It’s a good question, not only because those costs will certainly be passed along to those who purchase the products but also because of the economic barrier to entry it creates.

Only the largest corporations with the deepest of pockets can afford a $130 million dollar bill before a product gets to market.

“There are a lot of genetically engineered applications sitting on the shelf because organizations like universities cannot afford the cost of bringing them to market,” Eenennaam said.

China halted U.S. imports when it found evidence of an unapproved GMO trait in its imported corn, costing farmers who planted the seed billions in lost revenue.

Photo: Jevtic/istock

An island

Still another reason why U.S. consumers believe GMOs have significant credibility issues is that U.S. consumers are not alone in their doubts about the efficacy of GMOs. A number of countries – including the European Union – have either temporarily or permanently banned GMOs, mostly in response to consumer demand.

The U.S. has done the opposite. It wholeheartedly embraced GMO products until recently.

Stating GE corn posed “an imminent threat to the environment,” a Mexican federal district judge banned the sale of genetically modified corn in his country two years ago. The judge ordered the national government to ensure all commercial, pilot or experimental plantings cease immediately.

On Dec. 16, 2015, the Philippine Islands instituted a temporary ban on all GMO-related research.

The European Union is currently involved in proceedings to eliminate the only GMO crop now planted in any of its countries, a Bt (insect-resistant) maize variety now grown only in Spain and Portugal.

All of this indicates the emergence of a global market for non-GMO food products. Since 2009, Cargill has been selling lines of non-GMO food products made from what it calls idP (identity-preserved) farm products.

This market is not limited to industry giants. A family-owned, Fargo, North Dakota-based seed and bulk ingredient supplier, SK Food International, sells an array of identity-preserved beans, grains, flours and oils, to name a few.

The company boasts a few familiar and some not-so-familiar certifications. It advertises USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project and Orthodox Union Kosher certifications.

China: Our future?

One-fifth of the world’s population lives in China and yet only 7 percent of its land can sustain agriculture. Despite having adopted all the technology of modern agriculture, Chinese crop yields are flat.

Incomes are on the rise in China, which is driving increased demand for meat. Its corn imports totaled 5 million tons in 2014 and are expected to grow to 20 million by 2020.

Knowing it must find ways to feed its growing population, the Chinese government made a huge investment in GMO research. Chinese scholars estimated their government has spent more than $1.4 billion since the early 1980s looking to improve crop yields for a population expected to reach the same number by 2030.

Similar to the United States, China’s people appear to have a lot of reservations about consuming GMOs. As early as 2003, Chinese citizens were publicly expressing concern about GMO-related health risks (see chart). While Westerners might find it shocking that a totalitarian government would heed the wishes of the “little” people, listen they did.

The Chinese government’s response has been to all but halt commercial development of its GMO research.

In the United States, private citizens have taken to the courts to get the government to listen.

“It is possible genes could move from engineered varieties to natural ones through pollen transfer,” said Extension specialist Peggy Lemaux.

Photo courtesy of University of California-Berkeley.

Litigation and lawmaking

The frenzy feeding U.S. consumers’ growing conviction of the righteousness of their beliefs is a wide array of litigation surrounding GMOs. All of this litigation will have direct and indirect effects on U.S. domestic and foreign grain markets.

Syngenta, the European crop chemical and farm seed production giant, is at the center of the legal swirl surrounding GMOs. In a class action suit filed in October 2014, claimants allege the company released a seed corn variety into the U.S. market with traits not yet approved by the Chinese government.

At the time, China was the United States’ third largest corn export market. China halted U.S. imports in November 2013 when it found evidence of an unapproved GMO trait in its imported corn. Experts suspect the trait was the result of drift. That cost farmers who did not even plant GMO seed billions in lost revenue.

There is a family of lawsuits addressing cross-contamination, a major component of existing and possible future GMO litigation. Scientists suspect pollen from GE seed-produced corn travels by various natural mechanisms, including the wind and on the legs of bees.

“It is possible genes could move from engineered varieties to natural ones through pollen transfer,” said Peggy Lemaux, a University of California-Berkeley genetics and genomics of cereal grains extension specialist. “Corn tassels produce pollen, which we know will cross with a plant 50 yards or so away to the silks of another plant.”

Carried by the wind, by birds or bees, pollen adheres to property boundaries just about as well as the smell of manure does or the noise of a corn dryer operating at midnight. How unlikely is it then that GE corn pollen might move from farm to farm by this means?

Labeling is another hot button issue. The Vermont Legislature passed a law, signed by its governor, to require labels on foods containing GE ingredients. A group of industry trade associations has filed suit against the law, which takes effect in July 2016, alleging it is unconstitutional.

Foreseeing the likelihood of litigation concerning the law, the Legislature also created a $1.5 million legal defense fund in the act. Vermont’s law is one of many passed or being considered by legislatures around the country.

More than 30 states have introduced bills to require GMO labeling. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July 2015 to block three state GMO labeling laws in Maine, Connecticut and Vermont. Stalled in the Senate because its members did not take up the bill, the measure proposed voluntary labeling. Anti-labeling interests attempted to pass the bill by adding a rider to a federal spending bill moving through the Senate.

A coalition of Democratic senators halted the effort in mid-December 2015. Into 2016, groups supporting mandatory labeling continue to urge members of Congress to support a mandatory labeling bill.

Find cover

GMO labeling is the hottest issue consumer advocacy groups are currently advancing. According to a November national poll paid for by the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Food & Water Watch and Just Label It, 77 percent of Americans favor a labeling law.

Eighty-eight percent of those responding said they would prefer a printed GMO label appearing on the food packaging.

The day when science may have quieted opposition to GMO foods has passed. Nor has the FDA’s finding that there is no discernible difference between GMO and conventional foods gained much traction with a growing number of U.S. consumers.

This is a battle lost, something U.S. farm groups seem to have already acknowledged. Both National Farmers Union (NFU) and American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) support some form of labeling, though predictably, they are on opposite sides of the issue: AFBF supports voluntary GMO labeling, while NFU supports mandatory labeling.

For now, perhaps the best path through this high-stakes dust-up is for farmers to decide which crops they will grow in their fields: GMOs or identity-preserved varieties – and step aside to let the lawyers, lobbyists, lawmakers and special interest groups hash out the litigation and labeling issues.