As a scientist, I'm not much for gazing into crystal balls. But now that President Obama has signed the GMO labeling bill, it's a good time to look at how this new federal law might impact the future of crop biotechnology.
Though labeling proponents have long argued that people have a right to know what they're eating, others felt the labeling movement was essentially an attempt to destroy agricultural biotech by frightening consumers, thus reducing sales of GMO foods and demand for GMO crops.
The bill passed by Congress thwarts that effort. Though the new law requires food producers to inform consumers about the presence of GMO ingredients, it gives them the option of using a federally approved symbol, scannable bar code or words — none of which carry the same stigma as a warning label.
The law sets a national standard for labeling foods derived from genetically engineered crops, and prevents states like Vermont from adopting their own labeling laws. This provides farmers and food manufacturers with the economic assurance that their products will be handled consistently, which gives them confidence to continue producing food derived from biotechnology. National uniformity also helps consumers by eliminating confusion about different standards.
Since many of the anti-GMO groups are unhappy with the new law, it's a given that the legal battles and rancor will continue. But the stage will shift from Congress to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is tasked with deciding which ingredients require GMO labels, based on a definition created by Congress.
Because the issue will remain politicized in this way, we're likely to see a continuation of the scare tactics that have cast this breeding technology in a negative light, as well as litigation challenging the USDA rules.
But I think we'll actually see public acceptance of GMOs increase, once label-readers realize these ingredients are present in so many of their favorite foods. Most people don't really know what a GMO is, and have no strong feelings about them one way or another. Their susceptibility to fear-mongering will diminish as they come to understand they've been eating these products for 25 years now, with no ill effects.
We're all creatures of habit, and favorite foods are part of our routines and our traditions. Given a choice between choosing a non-GMO food that is possibly more expensive, or sticking with a familiar product, consumers are apt to pick what they know, like and can afford.
Greater consumer acceptance means new opportunities for public sector scientists and others who are using biotechnology to improve small market, speciality and indigenous crops. Commodities like soy, corn and canola currently account for nearly all the world's GM food production, in part because anti-GMO activities have made it impossible for all but the big multinational corporations to play.
It's quite possible that the labeling law will also usher in a comprehensive review of the federal regulatory process, which is in desperate need of updating and streamlining. By making the process less expensive, without compromising safety, we'll even the playing field so that smaller companies and universities can afford to get new GE crops on the market.
In the meantime, those of us who understand and support this technology can take advantage of the labeling buzz to educate people on the very real economic, environmental and social benefits possible with genetically engineered crops.
Though it's been hotly debated for years, GMO labeling will soon be the law of the land. While some fear the change, I feel optimistic that it will spur new advances in crop genetics, and greater public acceptance of this important technology. But we'll need to step up educational outreach and public sector research to make the most of the opportunities.