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Genetically Modified Food


Alison Peck


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Did your breakfast this morning contain genetically modified organisms? Do you want such foods to be specially labeled? Should you care? GMO labeling has been making headlines for several years, but the political and legal debate over the best way to regulate genetically engineered products is actually decades overdue.

Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed laws requiring genetically engineered food to be labeled. Other states have had similar ballot initiatives defeated, bills pending or previously introduced bills, including West Virginia. 

On the federal level, a variety of GMO labeling bills have been introduced in Congress. Some would require the Food and Drug Administration to mandate GMO labels under existing federal law, while other bills would interpret that same federal law to preempt state efforts to require GMO labeling without mandating a federal labeling regime. 

Unfortunately, because this public attention to GMOs has arrived late in these products’ history, it is also misdirected. GMO labeling is unnecessary, because concerned consumers may already avoid GMOs by buying certified U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic products, which cannot contain GMOs. But this labeling would also be insufficient because it fails to plug holes that were left in the federal oversight of genetic engineering technology in the rush to bring these products to market a generation ago. 

GMO technology first became marketable in the 1980s. At that time, the Reagan Administration sought to ensure that U.S. companies would gain competitive advantage over foreign competitors by streamlining federal oversight of the new technology. Congressional committees held a few hearings examining the possible impacts of the new technology and the potential need for new legislation. In 1986, however, the Reagan Administration announced a policy, called the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, under which GMOs would be regulated by three federal agencies — the USDA, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency — under separate pre-existing statutes regulating plant pests, food additives and pesticides. 

The trouble with this policy is that the laws on which it was based did not anticipate genetic engineering technology and cannot keep up with its current advances. This leaves gaping holes in the federal government’s ability to oversee GMO products and to ensure that new products are safe for the environment and consumers. For example, USDA’s authority to regulate GMO seeds is based on a law that requires USDA to oversee plant pests, defined to include bacteria and viruses. This was arguably adequate in the early days of genetic engineering, when scientists used viruses as vectors to deliver genes to the target cells. The latest technology, however, may deliver the new genes without the use of viruses, or may delete genes rather than adding them, as seen with the new CRISPR gene editing tool. USDA’s authority to regulate viruses does not provide any authority for USDA to regulate these new products. 

President Barack Obama has acknowledged this and other deficiencies in the existing Coordinated Framework policy, and in 2015 appointed an interagency task force among USDA, FDA and EPA to study the framework and recommend adjustments. This is a good start, but it does not go far enough. Now that consumers have become aware of the prevalence of GMOs in our environment and food supply, concerned citizens should push for greater participation in this administrative review. You can learn more about the task force and sign up to be kept informed of opportunities to comment at

In addition, citizens should ask Congress to reconsider new legislation specific to GMOs that will plug existing gaps and keep up with changes in technology. The GMO labeling movement has helped to focus and channel public dissatisfaction with the way the government has handled GMOs in the past. A thorough review and substantial revision of the Coordinated Framework, with greater public participation and transparency, would treat the root causes of that dissatisfaction and ensure that GMOs remain available to the market without posing unnecessary risks to our environment and our food supply. 

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Alison Peck is a professor in the College of Law, where she teaches and writes in the area of sustainable development, including environmental and trade law, with a special focus on agriculture and food law. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a JD from Yale Law School and an LLM in agricultural law from the University of Arkansas.