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GMO food labels are coming. But with most products already using modified ingredients, battle lines have shifted.

Food safety advocates still fight for tougher labeling rules, but Colorado farmers feel like they're on a public education campaign of their own

Nikki Weathers holds popcorn kernels grown on her farm near Yuma. Colorado State University researchers estimate that nine out of 10 corn kernels grown in Colorado are genetically modified. Starting next year, genetically modified foods must be labeled. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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While you were eating, some of the biggest controversies over genetically modified foods have largely been settled.

At least nine out of 10 kernels of corn grown in Colorado are GMO, as are 98 percent of the sugar beets and much of the alfalfa, canola and other commodity foods. Modified potatoes that can better handle aphids or a good bruising are on the way to the San Luis Valley. Altered super-growth salmon are now on the Canadian market, soon to ship over the border to the U.S.

Consumers who eat foods made with corn syrup, most cooking oils or refined sugar — just about everyone — are ingesting materials grown from GMO seeds.

And after years of consumer protest demanding that GMO foods at least be labeled as such — including a failed 2014 ballot issue in Colorado — nationwide labeling is now the law of the land, with USDA-approved symbols and codes set to appear in grocery stores next year.

New U.S. Department of Agriculture labels are designed to help consumers recognize food products that have been genetically modified.

With many of the most common commodities nearly exclusively GMO, “there isn’t much room for growth above 90 percent,” said Patrick Byrne, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

That doesn’t mean food and safety advocates have given up. They are still fighting to toughen up the federal labeling rules announced in December, and seeking stringent government review of the relatively new food production process of “gene editing.”

“GMO foods should absolutely be labeled. The issue is incredibly simple, if GMOs are safe there is no reason not to label products that contain them and the industry would have absolutely nothing to hide,” said Elana Amsterdam, a popular Colorado food blogger and cookbook author at elanaspantry.com.

“The new labeling law is not enough since it allows highly refined ingredients from GMO crops to be used in food products without labeling them as such,” Amsterdam said. “This is the opposite of transparency for the consumer.”

Gene editing versus genetic modification

In gene editing, one existing DNA trait is turned off — for example, to stop potatoes from turning brown. Genetically modified foods, by contrast, add traits from a different species — in salmon, for example, adding genes from a less-desirable fish that eats and grows faster year-round.

Battles also are brewing over Roundup, the pesticide most associated with the GMO controversy. Most corn and some other crops use seeds modified to survive when Roundup is applied to fields as a weedkiller. Food advocates and some European health officials have raised alarms about the cancer-causing potential of Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate.

A $289 million jury judgment in August for a California groundskeeper who said Roundup’s glyphosate caused his cancer further fueled public activism against the chemical. In statements after the verdict, Monsanto said it was appealing and that “researchers have conducted more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that support the safe use of glyphosate.”

While Roundup’s maker, Monsanto and its parent, Bayer, say glyphosate at current levels poses no harm, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and others are sponsoring chemical tests of common drinks using corn syrup to show alleged traces of glyphosate. CoPIRG says the group’s national coalition will be out with the test results soon.

In the meantime, local fights over Roundup application have stirred Boulder and Colorado Springs, among other cities. The city of Boulder stopped spraying glyphosate products on open space, and Boulder County continues to work toward removing GMO crops from open space leased to local farmers.  

CoPIRG embarked on the food testing as part of a strategic campaign to educate consumers before “going city to city” demanding laws, said Colorado director Danny Katz. “We’re heading in that direction as we try to better demonstrate this is really dangerous.”

Colorado farmers, meanwhile, feel they are on an education campaign of their own: Teaching consumers that they employ GMOs and genetic editing to produce healthy, cheaper food, and to lower their pesticide use.

Plant and animal breeding for characteristics

GMO defenders are also eager to point out that genetic modifications are as old as agriculture itself. Humans have always tried to speed up the mutation-and-natural-selection cycle by cross-breeding plants, grafting trees and selectively breeding animals for better traits. The newer science does not taint the genetics of consumable food, they point out.

“There have been so many scientific studies that there’s no difference” for health or nutrition between GMO crops and traditional seeds, said Nikki Weathers, whose family raises cattle and grows corn for silage, alfalfa and other hay outside of Yuma. She said she is proud that her generation and her father-in-law’s generation “embraced that technology.”

Nikki Weathers poses for a photo in a field of last year’s corn crop on her farm near Yuma, Colorado, on Feb. 13, 2019. Weathers and her family raise cattle and grow both GMO and non-GMO corn. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“That’s what we have to do to raise enough food for a growing population, and to afford enough corn to feed our cattle,” Weathers said.

As for labeling, Weathers said she was previously skeptical because there’s no nutritional difference, and so it just seemed like a marketing tactic for some holistic foods companies to raise their prices for a “non-GMO” label. She would know — her family raises non-GMO popcorn sold under the Snappy brand name with that fact highlighted, even though there is not currently any GMO popcorn grown in the U.S.

Now that the federal rules will label GMOs, Weathers hopes consumers will return her trust to a U.S. food system that has “the safest food in the world.”

“As a mom I would only ever feed my family things that are safe, and raise food the same way,” she said.

National labeling does not satisfy food safety advocates, who wanted states to be allowed to develop their own stringent labeling laws before President Barack Obama signed a pre-empting federal bill in 2016. The rules don’t require a GMO label if the food is so refined that GMO markers can no longer be detected, which means large volumes of consumer goods with corn syrup, sugar and cooking oils won’t have the label, said Food & Water Watch’s Patty Lovera.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which wrote the final rules, is also allowing various forms of a “label” with options including a scannable code that says nothing about GMO, or an offer to get an explanatory text from the manufacturer.

“You shouldn’t have to have a smart phone and a digital plan that’s not maxed out in order to find out what’s in your food,” Lovera said. “It’s not strong enough to give people what they need.”

Still unclear is how USDA will handle the new generation of modified foods that are genetically “edited.” Developers of those seeds say there’s no need for the foods to go through the extensive USDA and FDA reviews given to GMO crops because there is no cross-species introduction, only a canceled-out gene. Food & Water Watch and allies want all such foods to have full government review.

“We’d like to know more about what else did this ‘switch’ do that you turned off,” Lovera said. “We feel there’s a lot more to the genetic code than that.”

Incoming products with genetic modifications include potatoes that don’t turn brown when they are bruised, primarily raised in the U.S. northwest; a new variety of corn made drought tolerant by switching off a defensive marker; non-browning mushrooms; and salmon, referred to derisively by Alaskan members of Congress as “frankenfish,” that has been approved in Canada and is on its way to U.S. markets.

San Luis Valley potato growers are not yet using the non-browning potatoes, which are controlled by Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Company, said James Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee in Monte Vista. They are more interested in creating a potato that would resist an aphid that cuts into yields, Ehrlich said.

“That would be huge for us,” he said. The growers are talking about funding research projects on the idea with Colorado State University specialists.

As for labeling, Ehrlich said he is personally in favor of promoting transparency and consumer comfort, though valley farmers debate whether the labels raise more questions than they answer.

Potato growers would be happy to show curious consumers how farms work in the valley, he added. “If they want to know what’s in their food, they should visit farmers.”   


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