- The FDA, USDA and Environmental Protection Agency launched a public education campaign about GMOs this week called "Feed Your Mind." The campaign consists of a website, fact sheets, infographics and videos. It will extend into material for high schools, health professional resources and other consumer groups in 2021.
- The initiative is aimed at answering consumer questions about GMOs, including information on what they are, how and why they are made, health and safety issues about them, and how they are regulated.
- “While foods from genetically engineered plants have been available to consumers since the early 1990s and are a common part of today’s food supply, there are a lot of misconceptions about them,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a release. “...Genetic engineering has created new plants that are resistant to insects and diseases, led to products with improved nutritional profiles, as well as certain produce that don’t brown or bruise as easily.”
While it is commendable that three federal groups are partnering on a public information campaign on GMOs, they are at least a decade too late. Yes, GMOs are still ever-present in food in the U.S., but the controversy about them has died down — and they're in the process of being presented to the American public under a different name.
The first GMOs were created in the 1990s. The Rainbow papaya was created in the early 1990s with an immunity to the Papaya Ring Spot Virus, an incurable disease that threatened to decimate the fruit tree in Hawaii. The Flavr Savr tomato also was developed in 1994 to stay fresher for longer.
Since then, genetically modified crops have been developed for a number of different reasons. Many of them have been modified in the lab so the crops could resist disease, are less attractive to pests, can withstand pesticides, are able to thrive in adverse weather conditions, or have improved yields. Many scientists say GMO crops are just as healthy as their predecessors.
GMO crops have proliferated in the U.S. According to USDA data, GMOs are widespread in common food crops — 94% of all soy grown in the U.S., 83% of domestic corn and, according to statistics reported by Harvest Public Media, 95% of U.S. sugar beets use the technology.
The debate over whether GMOs are appropriate in food hit its zenith in the last decade, as activists started to protest their widespread use and say consumers had a right to know if their food has been genetically modified. Laws requiring GMO ingredients to be labeled passed in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut. This led to a federal labeling law being passed in 2016, which pre-empted all of the state regulations and set a single nationwide standard for GMO labeling.
With all of the attention paid to GMO crops and legislative moves about 10 years ago, that would have been a good time for the federal government to begin this education push. But the $3 million for this campaign was appropriated in 2017.
Right now, manufacturers are allowed to start putting GMO labels on their products, though the new federal law does not require them until 2022. The GMO label refers to the modified components using another term — bioengineered — and does not require the label on many highly processed foods that may have initially come from GMO crops. The websites created by the federal government briefly explain the "bioengineered" labeling terminology, but refer to the crops using the GMO acronym the majority of the time.
While many consumers still know very little about GMOs — and yet are vehemently opposed to them — it seems the debate has cooled somewhat. And while consumers may be likely to notice a "bioengineered" label on their food, whether it will make an impact on purchasing decisions has yet to be seen. The labels are currently on very few products, and those tend to be items where companies are very transparent about their use of GMOs, such as the Impossible Burger.
At the Institute of Food Technologists conference last year, Kathy Musa-Veloso with the quality assurance testing company Intertek, presented several studies about GMO labeled foods. In one study, two-thirds of consumers didn't notice a simulated GMO label. Of those who did, the label convinced more than half of them not to buy a product.
Musa-Veloso told IFT19 attendees that GMOs "are often associated with consumer fear and mistrust." While a proper education on GMOs could help combat those feelings — and maybe even make some consumers realize their benefits and look for GMO products in the future — it's unlikely that those lessons will be easily understood as also applying to "bioengineered" food. Since the labeling law could very well change the public terminology on the issue, there may be a future where the acronym "GMO" may only consistently appear on the Non GMO Project Verified seal.