GMO’s, revolutionary scientific benefit or risky regulated venture? Pace’s Food You Design February Bioethics Forum

By Lauren Baron

            On February 26, Pace gathered four people from different professions, with varying opinions on the influx of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food system for Pace’s Food You Design Bioethics Forum. Nathanael Johnson, Shelley Boris, Pamela Ronald, and Pace Law School’s own Jason Czarnezki were the panelists at the event. Andrew Revkin, a Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies and a former New York Times journalist moderated. Mr. Revkin continues to write the environmental blog Dot Earth for the Times.

Nathanael Johnson is a journalist for grist.org since June, and specializes in stories on food. His recent work was a research based piece on genetically modified organisms in order to clear up some of the “murkiness” associated with the issue due to biased information sources available to the public. Mr. Johnson’s viewpoints were interesting because he had been exposed to both sides of the GMO debate and argued there is a thirst for non-partisan information on this issue that is less biased.

Shelley Boris is the Executive Chef at Fresh Company and an author of a cookbook for the Garrison Institute. Her connection with food and her use of food in her job every day was the focus of her comments. Her primary concern when cooking for any client is health, and since there is skepticism regarding health risks associated with ingesting GMOs, she tries to make minimize her client’s exposure to such food.

Pamela Ronald is a geneticist and the Director of the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis. She also co-authored a book with her organic farmer husband on farming and the science behind GMOs. Ms. Ronald’s scientific viewpoint was interesting as someone who has worked with genetically modified organisms and has been praised for her work on disease and flood resistant rice for the benefits to developing countries. Her strong belief in the benefits of GMOs came out on the panel, however she was realistic about the need for regulation and the labeling issues associated with GMOs.

Jason Czarnezki is a recent member of the Pace Law School faculty and is a Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law. Professor Czarnezki’s research specializes on the intersection of food security and the law, and he co-authored the book “Food, Agricultural Policy, and the Environment: History, Law and Proposals for Reform.” His skepticism of the safety of GMOs and labeling issues contrasted with Pamela Ronald’s strong support of the benefits.

Three themes emerged throughout the panel: 1. safety of GMOs, 2. regulation of GMOs, and 3. labeling of GMOs. Each panelist had interesting and sometimes contrasting viewpoints on these issues. In regards to the safety of GMO’s, Pam Ronald’s opinions differed the most from the other panelists because of her intimate involvement with the development of certain GMO crops and her belief in the benefits they can provide. Other panelists seemed slightly more skeptical and wary of the development of GMOs.

Nate Johnson’s research indicated that the public is wary of GMO’s because of perceived health concerns; however scientific research indicates the GMO’s we use now and have been using for years do not pose significant health risks to the public. Although the benefits of GMO foods may be great GMO’s are a technological solution to what is primarily a social and political problem, Mr. Johnson stated. For example Golden Rice could positively impact Vitamin A deficiencies around the world, but this technological solution is easier to choose than solving poverty and government corruption. In addition, despite potential benefits from such products, Professor Czarnezki and Shelley Boris agreed that there are potentially unperceived health and environmental consequences associated with widespread GMO use.

Unlike the European regulatory system, the United States does not often employ the precautionary principle in our regulations in order to encourage innovation and economic growth. Both sides of the GMO debate argue that there is either far too much regulation or too little regulation according to Mr. Johnson. The regulation of GMOs is also extremely complex in the U.S. because there are several agencies that essentially co-regulate. The main agencies involved include the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, who work together to form what is known as the coordinated framework. The panelists discussed how the regulation of GMOs is an industry driven process, meaning industries submit the scientific studies on whether the product they want to produce or grow is safe and the appropriate agency approves or disapproves the initial production and perhaps eventually approves mass production.

The regulatory regime discussion during the panel directly related to the discussion on labeling. Ideally, food would be properly labeled using a uniform system because the way that the current system is set up is very misleading. For example, there are several labels for organic food such as “organic” or “all natural” however many of those labels are not regulated by the government. A company could label its product all natural itself and consumers who do not understand the labeling system would be unaware. Professor Czarnezki stressed the importance of the coordinated framework regulatory regime cooperating to create a workable labeling system. He also noted there has been a movement in regulations towards protecting consumers against the type of consumer fraud that is occurring. One interesting aspect of labeling Professor Czarnezki suggested, which Dr. Ronald and the other panelists agreed with, was to incorporate the entire greenhouse gas lifecycle of a particular food product into the labeling system. This means that the greenhouse gas emitted in growing a food product, processing it, and transporting it would be included in the label. This is an alternative way to promote consumer consciousness about the environmental impact a food product may have rather than just labeling a product “organic” or “natural.”

Based on the Bioethics Panel it seems the major problems with GMOs are associated with the general public’s knowledge about them. There are many different sources of information dispelling extremist points of view about GMOs on both sides of the debate. Nate Johnson noted how “the fear of the unknown” can often deter consumers, and promoting transparency through a standardized labeling system would help with this problem. In addition, promoting transparency between regulatory bodies, product producers, and consumers will help eliminate the more sensational information currently available that is misleading consumers, and allow a customer to thoroughly evaluate the possible risks incurred from consuming a genetically modified food product.

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