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Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law to Take Effect, But What Makes a Food ‘Modified’?

Elizabeth Weller
Flickr/Creative Commons

Kathleen Masterson of the New England News Collaborative reports on GMO labeling.

Vermont’s so-called GMO Labeling Law will go into effect July 1. It requires manufacturers to label foods made with genetic engineering. It’s the first law of its kind in the nation, and it has started a trend.

Maine and Connecticut have passed similar laws, but only require labels if nearby states join the labeling bandwagon. New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are also considering labeling legislation.

The Vermont law has prompted efforts in both the U.S. House and Senate to write national standards, even as federal authorities argue that genetically engineered crops aren’t different from other foods.

But when you see that label on a bag of chips or salad dressing, what precisely does it mean for a plant to be genetically engineered?

First, let’s talk about the term GMO, or genetically modified organism.

“Genetic modification, what does that mean? We’ve been modifying plants since way prehistory,” says Jeanne Harris, a plant biologist at the University of Vermont.

Harris prefers the term genetic engineering, which is what is used in the Vermont law. But when it comes to precisely defining the term, that’s where it gets murky.

For a precise definition, I asked an expert.

Richard Amasino, a biochemist at University of Wisconsin, Madison, is also on the committee at the National Academy of Sciences, which produced a recent report on genetic engineering.

“We didn’t focus too much on a definition of GE, but we spent a few hours realizing can’t really draw a line anywhere,” he says.

For the purposes of the labeling law, though, it had to be defined. Harris gave this basic definition.

“GE means using tools of modern technology to genetically modify plants,” she says.

And that jibes with how Vermont’s labeling law defines it — more or less. But the thing is there are methods of adding, deleting and duplicating the DNA of a plant that are not considered genetic engineering under the legal definition.

For example, Harris’ colleague Jill Preston describes a process called mutagenesis.

“So, we can use chemicals’ mutagens, or UV or something like that, that will actually make nucleotide changes within genes, disrupt or change function,” she says.

To be clear, this technique doesn’t involve inserting new or foreign genes into the plant, it’s more like “kinda what evolution does, we have mutations happening all the time,” Preston says. “This is just more, you know, directed. By humans.”

To make these changes, scientists either blast a plant’s DNA with radiation or use a chemical that disrupts the DNA. That’s not unlike when sunlight radiates DNA and causes mutations — scientists are just speeding up the process.

But just like evolution, it’s random. So there’s no way for scientists to know what kinds of genetic changes will result.

So is mutagenesis actually riskier than just modifying one gene?

“It’s more random — Is it riskier? Don’t think its riskier, it’s totally untargeted,” she says. “It’s impossible to mutagenize and only hit a single gene.”

Mutagenesis has been used in various forms for decades. In fact, foods that we eat today, like some kinds of rice, oats, lettuce and Ruby Red grapefruits, come from seeds created through this process.

And Harris says from a science perspective, she thinks it makes sense not to consider this technique genetic engineering since it’s mimicking nature’s process.

Canada and the European Union, on the other hand, do make a distinction. Canada considers plants produced with mutagenesis to be genetically modified. European authorities will not allow them to be labeled organic.

But some scientists say we should not focus so much on how the crop was created, but instead look at the end product.

“One could, in a laboratory, change a couple nucleotides in a gene, and one could also accomplish that through mutagenesis, and the products would be identical,” Amasino says. “Yet, at least by regulatory definitions that presently exist, one would be GE and one would not be.”

Amasino and other scientists say the real scientific issue, with respect to human health or safety of ecosystems, is revealed by studying the product, not the route by which we got there.

In the meantime, processed foods are already arriving on grocery shelves with genetic engineering label, which may tell consumers a bit more than they knew before about how their food was made.

This Vermont Public Radio story appears through the New England News Collaborative.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public

Kathleen is VPR's Morning Edition producer.

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