The US is in the throes of election mania again, and as in past election seasons, legislative initiatives designed to mandate labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are on next week's ballots in several states and even counties, such as Maui, Hawaii. While it has never been clear if any such legislation covers petfood in addition to food products for humans, the fact that GMO labeling supporters say "most packaged, processed and raw foods in the grocery store would be labeled" puts organizations such as the Pet Food Institute (PFI) on alert. That probably means petfood manufacturers should monitor how these ballot initiatives fare on November 4.
As in past elections, these GMO labeling measures are spurring massive spending from both "pro" and "con" campaigns; for example, an initiative on the ballot in Oregon had already become the costliest ballot contest in state history as of October 18, according to Lauren McCauley of Common Dreams. The deepest pockets tend to belong to companies and organizations that are against such labeling, such as Monsanto, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the like.
At the risk of entering the emotionally fraught debate over GMOs or mandates to label products that contain GMOs, I do find it interesting that even strong supporters of GMO labeling are admitting their surprise at some of the companies and brands contributing money to defeat such initiatives. Writing for the Huffington Post, activist Michele Swenson shared a graphic that showcases names such as Organic Valley, Stonyfield Organic, Odwalla, Annie's Homegrown and Kashi on the "con" side of GMO labeling measures. True, some of these brands have been acquired by grocery giants such as General Mills, but not all.
Perhaps some of these companies and brands have been swayed by science, said John Entine, a contributor to Forbes. Executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, Entine, who says he "writes skeptically about science, public policy, media and NGOs," wrote in August that the "most strident opposition to labeling is on science grounds." His point was that even experts and publications usually considered liberal, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, are publishing articles and essays claiming there is no scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are any more or less harmful for people or pose any risk to consumers. (No mention of whether any such research has been done about pets.)
Entine also quoted Scientific American, which he called one of the most independent science sources in the world, as stating that "labeling will spread scientifically inaccurate information that could harm human health and slow the development of agricultural biotechnology "which while not a silver bullet could play a key role in increasing the global food supply as population pressures escalate in coming decades."
That line of criticism against anti-GMO measures was echoed by Cathleen Enright, PhD, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, who spoke at the 2014 Feed and Pet Food Joint Conference, organized by PFI and the National Grain & Feed Association earlier this month in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Enright's organization is behind the website GMO Answers, which was started about two years ago to combat some of the fear and hysteria spread about GMOs, Enright said.
For example, the site (and Enright's presentation) includes photos of what GMOs are "very normal-looking plants" and are not "fish merged with bananas or syringes being pushed into tomatoes." Her organization is also now actively reaching out to GMO critics through social media to dispel common misperceptions about these foods, and she claims that effort is starting to turn around opinions, including of liberal media and journalists, just as Entine claimed.
Besides explaining the benefits of GMOs in terms of sustainability and feeding a growing world population, Enright also stressed that humans have been practicing genetic modification of foods for more than 1,500 years ”for example, by cross-breeding various species of certain plants to create varieties that are drought or pest resistant or create a higher yield with fewer resources." (She even claimed that most people wouldn't recognize the truly natural, original versions of such common foods as bananas, corn, carrots and broccoli; her accompanying photos were rather interesting.)
The difference with the genetic engineering practiced today, Enright said, is that it uses DNA to target specific genes and traits, making it much more precise, predictable and efficient than simply cross-breeding. Or, as Entine put it (in yet another commonality), "While conventional breeding swaps giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another, genetic engineering is far more precise, is less likely to produce an unexpected result and is pre-tested and monitored after release."
These arguments may be unlikely to sway anti-GMO activists and people who believe GMOs are truly dangerous, unhealthy or unnatural. Yet for many consumers, such information might make sense. If more ballot initiatives intended to require labeling of GMOs are passed, petfood manufacturers might find themselves needing to use such information to continue to sell their products.