In recent weeks, many major food manufacturers including General Mills, ConAgra Foods and Campbell’s have announced that they will begin labeling their products to state that they contain GMOs or genetically engineered ingredients. While all of these companies have stated unequivocally that they agree with the scientific consensus that GMO foods are safe, they have been forced to start labeling their products to comply with new labeling regulations from the state of Vermont. All of this is due to Congress not being able to approve federal legislation that would override the state’s new laws set to take effect in July 2016.
The Vermont regulations call for a simple statement in the ingredient label on the back of the package instead of the “skull and crossbones” negative warning symbol many anti-GMO advocates had been hoping for. Many of these same anti-GMO advocates have been claiming victory in the debate over GMOs while, in fact, well over 90% of all packaged foods sold in the U.S. will continue to contain some level of genetically engineered ingredients.
In this overheated and passionate environment, what should responsible leaders in the food science community think about the continuing debate over GMO technologies? Even though packaged food products will begin labeling the inclusion of GMO ingredients, the science behind GMO technologies will continue to play a crucial role in the evolving future of food. The food science community needs to have a clear and common sense position supporting the scientific consensus behind the importance of these technologies.
In thinking about this position, it is helpful to view the GMO debate through the lenses of the “Rich World” and the “Poor World.” In the “Rich World,” consumers are able to make “lifestyle choices” about the foods that they eat. Many “Rich World” consumers can afford to pay the increased costs associated with organic, natural and non-GMO food choices. They can make these types of “personal fashion statements” about the foods they choose to buy and eat.
In the “Poor World,” the least-developed countries around the globe, consumers are often simply trying to find enough food to feed themselves and their families. They cannot afford the kind of fashionable food choices that consumers in the “Rich World” are able to make. It is in these developing countries where the benefits of GMO technologies are needed most to increase crop yields, adapt for climate change and provide proper nutrition. The United Nations estimates that world population will expand to over 9 billion people by 2050 and that the vast majority of that population growth will take place in the least-developed countries of the world.
We need GMO technologies in order to meet the increased demand of food production required to feed this rapidly growing global population. GMO technologies and GMO scientists can help us feed the world, if we let them. The food science community needs to take the lead in advocating for the sensible development of advanced GMO technologies. We should support scientifically sound GMO practices and take the initiative to communicate the food science position to help educate consumers in the U.S. and worldwide. And we can do all this while still supporting openness and transparency across the food industry.
In the final analysis, feeding a rapidly growing world population is the “Grand Challenge” of our generation and the real goal of the evolving future of food. As Newsweek magazine recently said, “If we can’t feed the world, it will eventually feed on us.”