By Joanna Lidback: Barton, Vermont
A funny thing happened during the debate over GMO labels: A number of companies decided to make the voluntary disclosure that their food includes ingredients that are improved with the use of biotechnology.
The words now appear on many trusted products, from Raisin Bran and Wheaties cereal to Betty Crocker brownies to Aunt Jemima and Quaker Oats corn meal.
Look for them near the “Nutrition Facts” label—the one that lists calories, serving sizes, and nutrients, as required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The GMO statement will say something like: “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
Cheerios made news a couple of years ago when its original flavor in the iconic yellow box went non-GMO, and here’s what its label now says: “Not made with genetically modified ingredients.” Then, right below this statement, it allows that “trace amounts” may be present.
For what it’s worth, other kinds of Cheerios include GMO ingredients and say so on the sides of their boxes. These varieties include Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Multi Grain Cheerios, and Chocolate Cheerios (yes, there really is such a thing).
All of this confirms a consumer trend: People are becoming comfortable with GMOs. They’ve listened to the debates and they’ve learned that these are safe and healthy products endorsed by scientific organizations and regulatory agencies around the world. Genetically modified crops are also an important part of sustainability because they help farmers grow more food on less land with improved conservation methods.
I’ve always appreciated the value of GMOs. As a farmer, I see how they boost productivity in an environmentally friendly way. As a consumer, I know they help keep food prices in check. As a mother, I recognize their potential to improve our eating habits.
Because of this, I’ve always been skeptical of mandatory GMO labels, which have seemed like a pet cause of special-interest groups and ideological activists who seem to have their own alternative science.
When my home state of Vermont passed a law to require GMO labels a few years ago, I spoke out against it. My major concern was that the information would baffle grocery-store shoppers, who might treat the label as a warning, when in fact there is no reason to avoid these products. I was also worried that it would drive up food prices and reduce choices, hurting my low-income neighbors the most.
My state’s law eventually prompted a bipartisan majority in Congress to act, and last summer President Obama signed legislation that establishes a flexible set of national standards for GMO disclosure. It was a reasonable compromise that solved the emerging problem of contradictory state regulations that would have succeeded only at sowing confusion and making everyone’s food cost more.
When the law passed, however, the voluntary disclosure of GMO ingredients was already underway—partly in response to Vermont’s law, partly in anticipation of similar laws in other states, and partly to satisfy the demands of a small number of consumers.
This follows a related trend. Some companies have tried to boast that their products lack GMO ingredients. Tens of thousands of products now bear the butterfly label of the Non-GMO Project, according to the group’s website.
Soon, however, they’ll face a new source of competition, as GMOs increasingly include traits that consumers want. The Arctic Apple is now arriving in test markets, and it uses the power of biotechnology to reduce the enzyme that causes apple slices to brown. I’m eager to try this fruit because it will help moms like me pack healthy lunches for our kids.
We’re also on the verge of other GMO advances, such as a potato that resists bruising and black spots. Allergy-free peanuts are also in the pipeline, and their successful commercialization will make if possible for 3 million Americans with peanut allergies to enjoy one of our most delicious foods.
And don’t’ forget, GMOs don’t just remove undesirable characteristics—they add desirable ones in a technique called “biofortification,” using the power of biotechnology to add vitamins and other nutrients to staple foods, helping us all eat healthier. The next time you are at the grocery store, you may want to compare the vitamin lists between the non-GMO labeled cereal and the others. I bet you’ll be surprised.
Right now, most consumers know that GMOs are nothing to avoid. In the near future, like me, they’ll actively seek them out.
Joanna Lidback and her husband operate the Farm at Wheeler Mountain, a diversified dairy farm in Vermont. Joanna volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).