Sunday, October 23, 2016

A new interpretation on GM foods-Will such window dressing impress the consumers?

The debate about the safety of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods never seems to end and in fact it is becoming more and more bitter and acrimonious day by day. The vacillating attitudes of government policy makers regarding making labeling mandatory for foods derived from raw materials raised by genetic modification are making the consumers more and more disturbing leading to world wide campaigns to ban such foods until their safety is established beyond a shadow of doubt. Massive consumer movements and multi pronged initiatives by consumer groups across the world demanding at least forcing the industry to declare on the label presence of GMO ingredients are gaining momentum and it is a question of time before the industry has to bow before such cascading consumer pressure. A simple question as to why the GMO industry is fighting tooth and nail to sabotage plans for making label declaration mandatory is- why are they doing it if GMO foods are absolutely safe? May be industry has a feeling that consumers will boycott such foods if they become aware of presence of GMO ingredients in such products. Added to this many products carrying declaration that they do not contain GMO ingredients provide a ready platform for consumers to go selectively for such "neat" foods as perceived by them, in preference to the GMO containing ones. Ultimately it boils down to the impact this will have on the bottom line of many GMO food peddlers! 

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of USA whose dictats are followed by many countries across the world has been very circumspect in its interpretation and policy orchestration vis-a-vis GMO foods. For ages FDA has been maintaining that GMO foods are "almost" like natural foods and are safe to consume by human beings. Probably such a policy support to the GMO industry has created a situation in that country where more than 80% of the processed food products made and marketed contain one or more GMO ingredients without the innocent consumer ever knowing about it! Does this not amount to deception by a government supposed to be the most democratic in the world? Is this ethical? Of course in an over democratized country like the US every individual has the right to do what he or she wants and true to this "ideal" the elected representatives also practice their fundamental right to say and do what they feel is right. It is another matter that a majority of these law makers are obliged to the GMO lobby because their elections have been bank rolled by them and they feel it is not correct to let their clients down by siding with the citizens though they forget that they owe their power to the very same electorate! 

Here is a contradiction which is very difficult to explain away. In some of the states the proposal to make declaration of GMO ingredients mandatory failed ballot initiatives giving an impression that people are not too concerned about this issue. On the other hand surveys after surveys have shown that more than 80% of the citizens want to make such labeling compulsory! This has been attributed to the massive propaganda unleashed by the GMO lobby to "brainwash" the consumers through half "truths" and "no truths" about the safety of GMO foods. To an ordinary citizen it does not make any sense to adopt GMO foods because nature provides foods which have been found safe over centuries and why there should be attempts to tinker with nature. Hybridization technology practiced since long takes time to give desired results but the resultant hybrids generated due to natural gene mutations are stable and safe, consumed since time immemorial. Also not easily understood by the common man is the advantage of GMO foods for them or for the humanity as the claims of increased yield through GMO technology has never been proven any where so far. Of course traits like pest resistance and others are incorporated through GMO technology but here again net advantage is not undisputed. 

Why is that the issue of GMO foods became a debating point again? Recent attempts by FDA to stop use of the phrase " does not contain GMO ingredients" by those not using them has created another unwarranted controversy and many feel that such an attempt is tantamount to punishing the citizen through denial of information about the nature of food being purchased by them. FDA feels that no one should use such declaration because many foods created through biotechnological process do not use genetically modified organisms all the times and most products are at best genetically "engineered" or "bioengineered"and therefore industry must shun using GMO word unnecessarily to avoid confusing the consumer. It is similar to saying that "no protein is present in an edible oil pack". May be there is a point and FDA may be right in issuing such an advisory which industry can adopt as long as no one uses the word GMO in any context. As far as consumer is concerned all he is interested is to know whether the food he is buying is made from natural ingredients with proven credentials. Whether the new FDA advisory is acceptable to the industry remains to be seen.

Many major food companies using genetic engineered food ingredients are happy that FDA has stuck to its position that it is not required for the processors to disclose presence of genetically engineered ingredients, sticking to its position that such products are not materially different from non-engineered versions. After all industry's efforts to resist mandatory labeling, fearing that customers will be scared off by foods known to contain genetically engineered ingredients seem to be succeeding. However the specious plea by them that mandatory labeling will drive the cost of the food cannot be accepted. It is a good sign that many major food companies have already moved to voluntarily label products that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, either simply stating that on their packaging or using a small butterfly seal to show that the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that provides certification for food producers, has certified the absence of genetic engineered substances. Interestingly there is a genuine attempt by many manufacturers in the US to source non-GMO. ingredients which is a good sign as far as consumers are concerned. According to a recent report there are more than 30000 products in the US market carrying the label that they are free from GMO food ingredients and probably this sector may be worth about $ 13.5 billion which may be a fraction of the total retailed foods estimated at $ 638 billion last year.

The desire of the citizens for accessing clean and safe foods is reflected by efforts in the US in different states to mandate labeling of foods that do contain genetically engineered ingredients but they have largely failed by narrow margins, after heavy lobbying and campaign spending by the food and biotech industries. it is in this context that the law makers at the federal level passed a bill that would require food companies to reveal presence of genetically engineered ingredient in food products via a QR code, a pixelated square that can be scanned with a smartphone, on packaging that will reduce the chorus for hard printing the same on every label. Though it may be acceptable to many people who have adequate computing literacy to read the code before making a buying decision, a vast majority might not be able to decode to understand the nature of the product. In such a situation FDA also wants to differentiate between genetically engineered and genetically modified to convey different things to the consumers. According to them genetically engineered product comes from the efforts of biotechnologists originating in a laboratory while genetic modification happens by natural process as in hybridization process. Thus we have three technical terms which include Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), Genetically Engineered (GE) and Genetically Modified (GM). Of the three GMO is the most dreaded because genes from another species find their way into a particular food, though in small quantities. This means GM foods are analogous to natural foods while GE foods are similar but created in the lab with some distinct advantages. 

Consumer is still left confused to make out what each of this term means if industry starts using all three terms for declaring their products are free from them. Probably more positive approach could be to make those using food ingredients created through GE or GMO technology to declare the same unequivocally as a part of the transparency protocol which consumers are bound to appreciate. Whether industry will agree for such a transparent practice is some what uncertain at this point of time because of monetary implications. Efforts of many manufacturers to source raw materials not tainted by GE or GMO will get rewarded only if declaration of presence or absence of lab created food ingredients on the label of each pack..


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