GMO foods debated by CSU and the rest of Colorado

English: Vegetable market in Heraklion, Crete....
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While many Colorado voters are still feeling the shock of Amendment 64, this November they might have to make a decision about another trail-blazing controversy— the labeling of genetically modified foods.

In December, members of the grassroots organization Right to Know Colorado submitted a draft of a statutory initiative for approval to the office of the secretary of state.

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“Our goal is very simple. We would just like to know what is in our food, so we are asking the people of Colorado to vote on a labeling initiative,” said Larry Cooper, a Right to Know lead organizer.

If approved, Right to Know Colorado will begin collecting the necessary 86,105 signatures to ensure the initiative makes it to the November ballot.

“We’re going to collect double that [number of signatures] just to insure we are on the ballot,” Cooper said.

Because this initiative will likely excite the statewide GMO debate, six professors and researchers across the College of Agriculture are working to update the University’s factsheets on genetically modified foods.

“As a faculty member at a land-grant university, my goal with these factsheets is to provide unbiased information to our stakeholders so they can make a better informed decision,” said Dustin Pendell, an agricultural economics professor.

This will not be easy. There are many aspects of the GMO debate—scientific, economic and emotional—that make it difficult to remain unbiased.

“It seems very rare that you get a more nuanced view, but I think this is where the truth lies—in the middle,” said Pat Byrne, a professor in the soil and crop department. “There seems to be the general perception that this technology just pervades the food system.”

While most processed foods contain GMO ingredients, the majority of wheat-based products, fruits and vegetables are GMO-free.

Some GMO labeling requirements already exist.

“The FDA currently requires labeling of GMOs in some instances. For example, if they contain allergens, higher levels of toxins or a change in nutritional value,” Byrne said.

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These labels aren’t prevalent in the grocery store because there are few or no food products the FDA has found to have these characteristics.

Labeling proponents argue there has not been enough testing to verify GMOs are safe in the long term.

“We have no idea what the long term effects are and we should all be concerned,” Cooper said.

Genetic engineering isn’t limited to producing new crops. Many researchers, including Jan Leach, a bioagricultural science and pest management professor, use genetic engineering as a means to better understand how plants function.

“My research uses it as a tool,” Leach said. “We are trying to understand how to make plants more [disease] resistance.”

Leach’s lab currently focuses on improving bio-fuel qualities and disease resistance in rice.

Leach thinks each GMO product should be accessed on a case-by-case basis.

“We shouldn’t assume that because it’s genetically engineered it’s bad,” Leach said. “We should look at each situation and ask the question whether this gene poses a particular risk.”

Leach is concerned GMO labeling will cause unnecessary anxiety over the technology among consumers.

“It just raises fear in people when there is no scientific evidence [that GMOs cause health problems], and it has been studied for many years,” Leach said.

Leach is optimistic genetic engineering will aid plant breeding techniques.

“I would say the potential is there to increase the safety and health qualities of food more rapidly,” Leach said.

Garry Auld, a professor in the food science and human nutrition department, is less optimistic.

“Personally, I don’t think GMOs are going to address world hunger,” Auld said. “The cost of getting a GMO is enormous, so only the big countries can afford it.”

According to Auld, other methods, including organic agriculture, deserve a bigger share of research funds.

Auld agrees there is some merit in genetic engineering technology, but he worries large companies, including Monsanto, have too much market power in the industry.

“It’s not the technology per se that concerns me, it’s how it’s being used and who is controlling the technology,” Auld said.

Cooper’s most basic concern is knowing what is in the food he feeds his family.

“If we choose not to feed this to our kids and grandkids, we should know. Right now we don’t know,” Copper said.

For many voters, this decision may come down to cost. There are sure to be costs involved with implementing and enforcing a GMO labeling law. This will likely increase food prices, but by how much is still up for debate.

“There are some other studies that attempt to estimate the costs, but those studies are paid for by “pro” or “anti” group. The range is very large,” Pendell stated.

If the initiative moves forward, the debate over GMO labeling will only get more heated.

Collegian editor at large Isabella Heepke-Laws can be reached at community@collegian.com.