The words “genetically modified organism” (GMO) elicit a variety of reactions. Many people have a basic understanding of the science involved, but their level of knowledge on the subject varies.
According to the agriculture biotechnology company Monsanto, GMOs are a genetically modified organism whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering techniques. This information usually leads to the question: “What, exactly, are these GMOs modified for?” In general, genes are modified to improve the performance of an organism, such as the ability to produce more or increased drought resistance.
Supporters of GMOs say that a lack of understanding of the science and the reasons for modifying an organism is the reason behind strong negative opinions about the technology. A large segment of the population is demanding that GMO foods be labeled so that they can make a choice of whether to eat those products.
“I am personally not terribly worried about eating them, but I know people who are,” said adjunct professor of rural sociology at MU, Candace Korasick. “They should be able to make their own decisions about what they consume, and they can’t if GMOs aren’t labeled.”
Companies such as Monsanto credit GMOs with increasing yields for farmers, providing nutritional benefits, and reducing amounts of fossil fuels and natural resources used.
This past summer, the American Medical Association released a statement saying that there is no scientific justification for labeling for products containing GMOs.
Grover Shannon, professor of soybean genetics and breeding at Mizzou, also believes GMOs can be a safe choice. Shannon, who works with GMOs for a living, said he’d like the public to make note that genetically modified organisms have been tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture.
“If people vote to label GMOs, then I believe that is okay because it would be what the people would want,” Shannon said. “I encourage people who are anti-GMO to look into the science. It’s science that makes it okay.”
In addition to safety, the economic aspects of labeling GMO products must be considered. There is a cost associated with labeling that could impact the growers, input producers, packagers and consumers.
Jamille Palacios Rivera, a teaching assistant professor of applied agricultural microeconomics at MU, said that GMO labeling is much like any other production industry; this issue has two simple factors: supply and demand. Depending on consumers’ perceptions of GMOs, the demand will shift. If consumers associate GMOs with health risks, then the demand for foods with GMO ingredients will decline.
Palacios stated that using genetically modified organisms in food starts at the input producers, who sell the seeds. The expense of labeling would fall to the packager. If they pay for it, chances are they would increase their prices, and as a result of more expensive products, consumers would probably buy less, negatively impacting the packagers.
However, to offset the possible negative demand, she added that advertising could be increased to promote GMOs in foods positively.
“Different assumptions will lead me to different conclusions on this issue,“ Palacios said. “If we assume, labeling GMOs is required by the government and it [the government] financially supports labeling, and food chain participants join to eliminate negative perceptions consumers have of GMOs through advertisement, and are successful, then I say, label it.”
Many factors come into play when considering the pros and cons of labeling GMO foods. While the future of labeling GMO products may be uncertain, Korasick believes the future of the agricultural industry could go unphased.
“I think the overall impact to the agricultural industry would be minimal,” Korasick said, “If anything, labeling would eventually be better for the producers. Consumers don’t like thinking they are being deceived. Being honest about the presence of GMOs in your products would probably curry trust from the general public.”