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GMO is out, bioengineering is in

Many things are going out with the old year. Here is one: the term “GMO,” for “genetically modified organism.” The new term is “bioengineered.”

This change in terminology is one aspect of USDA’s new rules on genetically modified crops. They were announced on Dec. 18, 2018 but did not become mandatory until Jan. 1, 2022.

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard “defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature,” according to a press release from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

These rules thus do not apply to crops produced through gene editing, which accelerates processes that could be achieved through plant breeding.

The Washington Post quoted a USDA spokesperson as saying that the agency designed the new standards to balance a need to provide information to consumers with minimizing costs to industry.

The standards are also intended to supplant what has been described as “a patchwork of state-by-state regulations.”

There will be no in-store enforcement of the new standards. It will rely on complaints filed on the AMS site. Food items with bioengineered ingredients may also be labeled with QR codes that will provide more information to purchasers.

The new standards are in part responding to current conflicts over GMOs (to use the old term). Most scientific opinion, including that of the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration, maintains that genetic engineering poses no health hazard to consumers, but many of the latter remain skeptical about what they sometimes call “Frankenfood.”

The new USDA seal, indicating that a food item has been genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients, reflects an attempt to smooth over difficulties. “Bioengineering” sounds more environmentally correct than “genetic modification.” Furthermore, the color of the seal is clearly meant to suggest that these methods are indeed green.

In short, the new regulations seem to be designed in part to reduce consumer fears of GMOs simply by eliminating the term.

Personally, I do not know if genetically engineered products are safe for human consumption: I am in no way qualified to make such an assessment. As a result, my own position on this matter has to remain neutral.

At the same time, I feel a need to draw attention to an idea that percolates through the minds of many consumers: “Yes, you tell me this is stuff is safe, but why should I believe you? Over and over again, you told us that all sorts of pesticides and other chemicals were perfectly safe, but then you had to pull them from the market. Why should I believe you here?”

This sentiment explains a huge amount about public attitudes toward agriculture since at least the 1960s. Such concerns, whether expressed by consumer groups or by ordinary citizens, cannot be dismissed as merely frivolous or timorous. They must be dealt with seriously and responsibly.

It has not helped that over the decades, scientific sources have proclaimed some finding or another as irrefutable fact when it turned out to be nothing of the kind. (This in itself explains a great deal about what is going on the current national discourse on the pandemic, which I will do myself the favor of not discussing here.)

Events progress by a series of tensions and reactions between powerful forces: in this case, the relentless advance of scientific knowledge, urgent needs for new crops to deal with (for example) climate change, and consumer concerns about a food production system about which they know very little.

How will it all play out? For my part, I do not believe either prophets or futurologists.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.