Liz McCormick Published

What's the Deal on GMOs?


In July, the United States House of Representatives voted on House Resolution 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. It passed the House and has now moved on to the Senate. If passed into law, it would create a federal voluntary labeling standard for genetically modified foods or those with genetically modified ingredients. Labeling would also be regulated by the FDA. Here in West Virginia, there’s been some talk and show of concern from some over this bill, including a group in the Eastern Panhandle.

Just how often do you pay attention to your food labels?

Well for one group, it’s very important.


Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, speaks at the Jefferson Forum in Charles Town.

The Jefferson Forum is a group sponsored by the Mountain Party and meets monthly at a small restaurant in Charles Town. They discuss concerns they have locally, on the state level, or in Washington, DC.

At September’s meeting, a handful of people showed up to discuss GMO products. More specifically – House Resolution 1599, a bill that recently passed in the US House and is now in the Senate. Most people at the meeting oppose the bill’s passage.

“This bill will prohibit the states from enacting GMO and genetically engineered labeling laws, such as Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut are doing,” Daniel Lutz explained. Lutz is the moderator of the Jefferson Forum, and he’s also on the state’s executive committee for West Virginia’s Mountain Party.

Lutz says he has nothing against GMO products, but feels like this new bill would prevent consumers from knowing what’s in their food.

“As we economists call it – consumer sovereignty, to say yes I want to put this on my plate or for my family; no I do not. That’s a precept of the free market that oddly enough the introducers and sponsors of this bill pretend to value, but yet they want to take it away from us.”

The legislator who introduced House Resolution 1599, is adamant that the bill is a good one.

Mike Pompeo is a member of the United States House of Representatives, representing the 4th district of Kansas. He’s the sponsor of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.

“I’m a conservative, I believe in free markets,” Pompeo said, “I believe everyone has the right to know what’s in their food, and so it permits any food producer who is in the marketplace to label their food with respect to genetically engineered products, however they’d like so long as it’s accurate.”

But another concern opponents to Pompeo’s bill have is safety.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is the political director for the Organic Consumers Association out of Washington, DC. Mayer was the Jefferson Forum’s guest speaker on the GMO discussion.

“I think all scientists understand that when you disturb the DNA, you’re going to make changes in the DNA, not only the intended changes, but also unintended changes,” Mayer noted, “and these unintended changes can result in allergies, or allergens, toxins, changes to nutritional composition, which could be dangerous in its own right.”

However, representative Mike Pompeo says his bill would make GMO consumption safer by providing a standard to food labeling.

“Today, a company can introduce a food product that is genetically engineered without having submitted that to FDA,” Pompeo explained, “We will now have a requirement that says no new genetically engineered foods can hit the market place without having been submitted for review to the FDA. I think that’s a good thing, a step forward and should give consumers more confidence, and I expect that it will.”

But for those in opposition, it all boils down to trust, and many just don’t trust the provisions in the bill.

GMO Myths vs. Facts

To clear away some myth from fact, scientist Glenn Stone helped shed some light on GMOs and whether some of the concerns raised about them are valid.

Stone is a professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. And he’s also an expert on GMO products.

What exactly is a genetically modified organism?

“Well, GMO refers to something that contains what’s called recombinant DNA, which means it contains DNA that comes from different organisms that have been inserted into the cells of the plant,” he explained.

Stone says genetically modified organisms started being created back in the early 1970s, and then in the early 1980s, scientists began creating genetically modified plants. He says agricultural crops are the most important economic use of GM technologies.

Where did the stigma come from?

“What’s happened over the past, especially the past 20 years is that a huge brouhaha has developed between promoters of GM foods and crops and detractors,” Stone explained, “And as part of this fight that has been going on, both sides spend a lot of time looking for soundbites and ideas that really resonate with people that get people excited about what’s really a slightly obscure technology. ”

Stone says there’s been a lot of claims from both sides of the argument that are true, but he also says there are some claims that aren’t.

Take for example, the concern surrounding GMO products where the entire process of gene splicing is bad or unnatural.

“Some of the claims that are made in the fight of this labeling bill are just factually incorrect. If you go to the Vermont website that supports Vermont’s labeling law, you’ll find statements like that moving of genes across the species boundary doesn’t happen in nature, and so they’re trying to depict it as something that’s inherently unnatural and alien, and that’s just not true. Genes do move across species boundaries in nature, in fact the way they make genetically modified crops is by using a natural genetic engineer. It’s this really fascinating little bacterium called agrobacterium, and what it does naturally is it inserts its genes into a plant, and these genes force the plant to produce basically food for the agrobacterium.”

Stone says the health concerns surrounding GMOs, however, could have some truth to them, especially when looking at the potential of long-term effects.

“There are some major questions that remain unanswered and will always be fairly difficult to answer about what sort of health impacts it has if you’re consuming small amounts of GMO foods on a regular basis. Does that have health impacts that might manifest themselves later in life? So, those sorts of questions, I think are pretty solid.”

What now?

As for the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, it passed the House 275 to 150 and waits for action in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Our West Virginia representatives voted in favor of the bill. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reached out to all three for comment, but they did not reply before this story aired.

There’s no telling when the bill will be taken up in the Senate, but there’s sure to be debate.