Liu Debates – “Should we label GMO foods?”

The Liu Debates aims to provide space for critical, engaging conversations with informed participants at UBC by hosting frequent events on a topic of current policy interest.

Should we label GMO foods?

That was the question posed to attendees of the “Liu Debates” held on March 2, 2017. The panelists – who come from diverse backgrounds and disciplines – grappled with the topic, shedding light on nuances that are often lost in the public discourse. Here we present a summary of the debate, highlighting key points of interest and contention, and framing the discussion in a way that provides critical retrospective insights while also delineating new directions to be considered by researchers, policymakers, funding agencies, and consumers (see Figure 1).

GMO Debates Figure 1

GMO Debates Figure 1

It is befitting to begin our summary by first back stepping from the question at hand. As several panelists emphasized, the question itself is an outcome of the existing polemical discourse on the genetic modification of food crops. This divide is a manifestation of public distrust, warranted by the conflicts of interest that plague countries’ – in particular, the United States’ – regulatory systems for food and agriculture, thereby blurring the line between industry and government and resulting in the clandestine release of GMOs into the market. For example, only after complaints and issues surfaced with respect to the flavor-savor tomato did consumers come to know of the existence of GMOs in their grocery stores. As one panelist pointed out, even now – nearly two decades on – there has been little-to-no acknowledgement of this regulatory failure.

Distrust also permeates the research sector. There are concerns amongst the scientific community that the public sector is becoming increasingly beholden to industry due to funding shortages, causing the subsequent paucity of truly independent research being conducted on GM foods. Several panelists identified patent laws as the crux of the problem, adding that research and innovation remain stifled by patent owners who have full control over how their products are studied and utilized for research purposes. Even beyond the constraints that patents impose on research, some panelists pointed out that they also have very real consequences for farmers, and perceptions of unfair corporate control in the agriculture sector also color the public’s view on GM technologies.
In hindsight, we understand that the question of whether to label GMO foods or not is less about whether the public values the technology and/or the field of genomics, but rather, it is derivative of a growing distrust in government and even research institutions that are beholden to industry. Accordingly, many panelists found common ground around the notion that biotechnology and genomics are indeed valuable tools that could potentially contribute to meeting food security demands. And as one panelist stated, the tradeoff story now needs to include not only the pros and cons of moving forward with GM technology, but also the ethical implications of not.

Now that we understand the origin of the contention behind GM technologies, it’s time to explore the proposition of labeling itself. Some panelists pointed out the number of logistical complications that would arise from having to label GMO foods. First, defining GMOs is not an easy and straightforward task, especially as the fields of biotechnology and genomics advance. The term “genetically modified,” for instance, is perhaps not an appropriate descriptor for newer methods and innovations in the field, such as gene editing – a process that doesn’t require transplanting foreign DNA into a crop.  With these newer and cleaner tools, according to one panelist, scientists are often mimicking naturally occurring intra-species genetic variance – thereby calling into question if/when there is a rationale for making a distinction between a natural versus lab-induced genetic variance.

Complicating matters is the lack of consistency among countries that do require GMO labeling. Although many countries have successfully implemented labeling laws, it remains unclear as to what constitutes a GMO, or how we determine the presence of a GMO. As one panelist pointed out, the EU takes a process-based approach, following genetic modification down the food chain, while Japan takes a product-based approach, meaning genetic modification is not identified after a product has been processed to a certain degree. Such differences beg the question: how far does genetic modification echo through the food chain? Is canola oil from a GM rapeseed plant considered a GMO? Is a crop considered a GMO if it is cultivated in soil that was treated with manure from a cow that was fed GM corn? Panelists made it clear that, internationally, there is little consistency in how we define and determine whether genetic modification is present in our food.
And what about the implications? As one panelist put it, labels are a form of evaluation, and are often treated as a proxy for mistrust. As such, GMO labels may be likely to be perceived as negative signals, which consequently might serve to feed negative conceptions and create further obstacles to using GM technology in the future. Another panelist countered this and presented labeling as an opportunity to prize GM foods, highlighting the potential benefits of distinguishing GM crops that may require fewer inputs and resources over the long-term. In such a case, labels could instead be perceived as a signal for sustainability. Yet another panelist added to this line of thinking by presenting labels as an effective educational tool for consumers, providing them with a means for teasing out their concerns and values. In this vein, it’s important to understand that consumer concerns extend beyond the science and nutrition of a product; Fairtrade labels serve as a good example of this, as the label is an indication that consumers also care about the well-being of farmers and laborers.
Although there was no clear consensus on whether labels are potentially harmful to the advancement of science, or useful for raising public awareness, panelists did reach some level of agreement with respect to how labeling fits into the larger “toolkit,” and where it should be listed in the proverbial list of priorities. As one panelists highlighted, an important implication of GMO labeling is that it relieves the government of their regulatory role and puts the onus on consumers. And for many around the room, addressing the troubled regulatory system merited high priority – higher than a labeling proposition.

Despite not having reached a consensus on whether or not to label GMOs, the insights shared by panelists on all sides of the debate highlighted future directions for consideration. And if we had to pick one word that encapsulated that shared vision (a word that echoed throughout the debate), that word would be: trust. There seemed to be resounding agreement that we need to collectively refocus our attention on rebuilding trust in our regulatory systems and in the research sector. Panelists identified two paths forward for reaching that goal.
First, we need to repair the regulatory system by eradicating conflicts of interest that undermine government agencies’ roles in protecting consumers. As one panelist asserted: we need to explore the ways in which we can “regulate the regulators.” But this collective goal seems easier said than done. And although labels are no panacea in this respect, “they can stimulate more accountability,” according to another panelist. There seemed to be a general consensus that an informed and educated public, whether acquired through labeling or other measures, was one avenue for building said culture of accountability, and for paving other inroads toward a “regulated regulatory system.”
Second, we need to tackle the issue of industry bias within the research sector by supporting independent public sector research and mitigating the constraints that proprietary knowledge imposes on researchers and farmers. In the words of one panelist, “the GMO story [thus far] is really an industrial agriculture story,” where the consolidation of power amongst a few major agrifood corporations has led to the distrust and dissatisfaction of many. This is where funding agencies can step in to play an important role: as one panelist suggested, there’s an opportunity for funding agencies to direct research to tackle these kinds of policy concerns, and to ultimately help swing the pendulum back towards conducting science in the public interest.

And with that final thought, we are led into a new realm of analysis: the political economy of technological innovation in agriculture. Given the agricultural industry’s desire to remain on the cutting edge of technological developments, the potential exists for some of the same issues to repeat themselves in the implementation of new gene editing technologies if we do not address them head-on. We very much need to apply insights gained from reflecting upon the problems associated with GM in the past in order to forge a more transparent and trustworthy path forward.

Amber Heckelman, Liu Scholar and PhD Candidate in ISLFS
Dana James, Liu Scholar and PhD Student in IRES