If you’ve turned on the television lately, you’ve probably noticed a barrage of political ads debating two sides of a thorny issue about the food we eat. On November 5, Washington State voters will decide on The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, also known as I-522. This initiative will mandate labels on all genetically modified food sold in grocery stores. It follows on the heels of last year’s Prop 37, a similar ballot measure in California that drew national attention and massive campaign coffers on both sides of the issue. Prop 37 was narrowly defeated, 51-49 percent.
In the final weeks leading up to Washington’s election, the battle over I-522 is proving to be as emotionally charged as the California campaign and as effective in fueling the national debate over how our food is grown and brought to market. If passed, I-522 would be the first voter-mandated GMO labeling law in the U.S.
To help you decide where you stand on the GMO labeling issue, we’ve compiled a two-part cheat sheet of sorts, a rundown of the whats, whens and whys, and how this issue got to where it is today.
What the heck is a GMO, anyway?
GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. It is a plant, animal, insect, bacterium or yeast that has undergone genetic modification, also referred to as genetic engineering (or GE).
Ahhh, genetic modification/engineering?
Simply put, the genetic makeup (aka DNA) of an organism is altered by removing or mutating one or more of its genes, or by inserting a gene from another organism. The result is a new variety of the original organism.
How is genetic modification/engineering different from conventional plant breeding, including crossbreeding and hybridization?
Conventional breeding is actually a form of genetic modification. For thousands of years, farmers have been “sexually crossing” closely related plant species for sundry reasons, from improved yields to disease resistance. The practice helped to bring about tasty hybrids like the tangelo and pluot and the Honeycrisp apple. It’s how 19th century botanist Luther Burbank developed a disease-resistant potato (ultimately named the “Idaho”) that would be hardy enough to help Ireland recover from its potato blight.
But for the purposes of this discussion, we’re talking about genetic engineering conducted in a lab setting. This technique, called “transgenic technology,” has been practiced only in recent decades. Unlike conventional breeding, genetic engineering invites crossbreeding of unrelated species, taking specific genes from one species and inserting them into another. (The process has been described as using “chemical scissors.”) This new wave of genetic engineering is being used for medical and pharmaceutical research, as well as in agriculture.
Genetically-engineered soybeans are resistant to this destructive rust fungus. Credit: BASF
What crops are GE?
Transgenic technology has been used to develop dozens of genetically-engineered crops both for animal and human consumption. Currently, there are nine GE crops in production and in the global food supply: alfalfa, canola (a variation of rapeseed), corn (both field and sweet), cotton, Hawaiian papaya, soybeans, sugar beets, yellow crookneck squash and zucchini. (GE papaya is the only engineered fruit currently in the marketplace.)
About 90 percent of all corn, cotton and canola grown in the U.S. comes from genetically-engineered seeds. About 95 percent of sugar beets (which are refined into sugar) are GE, and 93 percent of soybeans.
The United States is the world leader of GE crop production, at 170 million acres (about half of all U.S. cropland). The U.S. and four other countries — Canada, Argentina, Brazil and India — grow 90 percent of all GE crops worldwide.
How long have GE crops been on the scene?
GE crops were first introduced in the U.S. in 1996. But since 1994, dairy cows have been treated with a GE bovine growth hormone to increase milk production.
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