Elizabeth Vierling: Will the fight for GMO labeling get the job done?



Last modified: Tuesday, May 05, 2015

AMHERST — As a career educator, when I hear questions about “genetically engineered” plants (GMOs), I recognize how complex the issues are — and how difficult it is to sort out what our concerns should be.

One is labeling. We can go to the grocery store, and increasingly to restaurants, and find information about the nutritional content (or lack thereof!) in the food we buy. This information includes specific quantities of carbohydrates (sugars, starches and fiber), fats (oils), protein, vitamins, minerals, calories and serving sizes, as well as other information (e.g. additive content) as regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.

People are calling for information about whether a product contains ingredients derived from a GMO. Will that label really provide information important to us as consumers and citizens?

There are at least two major reasons to want the “GMO” label. One reason is to enable individuals to make the choice to avoid buying products they feel support the crop monoculture and seed monopolies considered to be corporate-controlled agriculture. This “Big Ag” can be viewed as the driver of a variety of social and economic ills, although where blame lies is tied up in the agricultural economics of farm subsidies, world trade, food supply and other complex issues.

From this perspective, choosing not to purchase GMO-containing foods as the “socially responsible” choice would be similar to why many of us try to avoid buying products from any company we presume exploits its employees, damages the environment, or otherwise counters values we may view as critical to human health and the future of our planet.

What’s in a label?

However, if this is a major motivation, the GMO label alone does not serve the purpose, as corporate agriculture produces much more than the corn and soybeans that are the primary GMO crops in our food chain today. (There are minor amounts of GMO alfalfa used as hay, and sugar beets produced for sugar). Contrary to what many think, no wheat, rice, potatoes, peanuts, fruits (with the exception of Hawaiian papayas), or other major component of our diet comes directly from GMO plants.

Thus, foods with the GMO label would identify only a part of “Big Ag” products. It is difficult to know if avoiding such products would limit the reach of “Big Ag” without also damaging other sectors of the farm economy.

Of course, another major reason to want the GMO label relates to health. Although major medical and science groups, includes virtually all of the oldest and most respected scientific organizations in the world, have deemed current GMOs safe, doubt remains.

Here it becomes important to consider what makes a GMO a GMO. Take GMO soybeans. Soybeans have been engineered to have a tolerance to herbicides, one being the infamous “Roundup” produced by Monsanto.

What change was needed to make soybeans herbicide resistant? It involved modification of a single protein, one already found in plants, and one that you have eaten every time you have eaten a plant. We know proteins are important in our daily diets, but perhaps do not know that proteins are made from strings of amino acids. To make a soybean plant resistant to Roundup, scientists changed two out of the approximately 500 amino acids of one protein (called “EPSP synthase”) found in all plants so that it could still do its job for the plant, even in the face of Roundup.

Soybeans and other plants contain thousands of proteins, and therefore hundreds of thousands of amino acids. Changing only two amino acids was required to make an herbicide-resistant plant. This is amazing — that such a small change can have this effect. The compositional difference between a GMO soybean and a non-GMO soybean is so tiny that there are more differences among different varieties of soybeans than between a GMO soybean and its non-GMO parent.

In terms of labeling, the GMO content of the GMO soybean is this one protein. Because there are so many proteins in soybeans and other plants, the GMO protein comprises less than 1 percent of all the protein in the soybean. So if you eat pure soybean protein, it is very likely that much less than 1 percent of what you are eating is a genetically modified protein.

What if you buy soybean oil from a GMO plant or something made with soybean oil? If you read the current label on any soybean oil and look for the amount of protein, you will find the number “zero”. Oils produced from plants do not contain protein, or contain so little, it is not even measurable. This means that foods containing soybean oil (or for that matter corn oil) do not contain any GMO ingredients.

Do we need to avoid high fructose corn syrup from GMO corn? The nutritional label on corn syrup will also say zero protein. We may want to avoid high fructose corn syrup for lots of reasons, but it won’t contain GMO protein. If the health effects come from the genetic modification, which is the introduced protein, then the label should specify how much of the genetically modified protein is present, just as labels now specify how much protein, carbohydrate, oil, or additives are present in food. Should soybean oil be labeled GMO if it actually contains none of the GMO ingredient? Should products made with corn oil or high fructose corn syrup be labeled GMO when they contain none of the GMO ingredient?

Limits of labels

If we want to know what we are eating, a label that indicates a product came from a GMO source does not really tell us much and can be misleading. Do we want our labels to correctly indicate GMO content? If so, then each product should be tested and the percentage of GMO ingredient actually listed. Only then could we actually know what the GMO label would mean.

I do not think it makes sense to label foods as GMO for reasons of avoiding products of “Big Ag.” Our current system of agriculture needs an overhaul to achieve sustainability, and GMOs are not the major culprit here, as the system was broken and unsustainable before the first commercial GMO field was planted in 1996.

In fact, the “right” GMOs, with pathogen resistance or drought tolerance, water or nitrogen use efficiency, could be one part, though in no way all of the solution.

Yes, all GMOs need to be regulated and tested, as each GMO is different. We no longer casually introduce non-native plants to solve our erosion problems, and we monitor our borders for the hitchhiking seed, insect or pathogen.

So assessment of each GMO remains essential. It is, however, a tragedy that the public perception of GMOs is so negative, when the potential is there to add one more tool towards improvements in agriculture.

Achieving sustainable agriculture is an important goal for the world, and not enough funding is devoted to research and training towards achieving this end.

We need more fun runs, walk-a-thons and nonprofits supporting this type of research, not to mention federal investment. It is ironic that so many of us donate to efforts to conquer disease, when without a sustainable food supply, disease will be the last of our concerns.

Elizabeth Vierling is a distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has followed the development of “transgenic plant technology” (how GMOs are made) from its inception during her graduate school years and uses this technology in federally funded research at UMass. With support from the National Science Foundation, she has given presentations in Amherst and elsewhere on genetic engineering technology. For more information, visit her laboratory website: https://sites.biochem.umass.edu/vierlinglab/.




 


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