A legislative initiative in Washington state requiring food companies to label genetically engineered food has received enough signatures to move forward. It's another recent local headline in an increasingly global story.

This particular initiative will now take one of several paths, according to the Secretary of State’s office in Olympia, Wash.: Lawmakers could enact it, which would be unusual; they could do nothing, and it will go to the voters in November as it is written; Or they could modify it and both the original and modified versions will go on the ballot.

The measure and a similar one that California voters defeated last fall are an indication of widespread public frustration with the hot-button issue of genetically engineered food. The terms Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and Genetically Engineered (GE) inflame passions on both sides of the discussion, from the nation’s large farms to organic urban farmers to consumers who want to know what they are feeding their families.

Some fear that inserting DNA from animals, bacteria and viruses into food crops can cause health problems. Others worry that pollen from plants on a GMO farm might reach plants on a non-GMO farm. That could hurt the ability of the non-GMO farmer to sell crops overseas because many countries do not allow GMO crops. Others fear that GE crops might lead to unexpected and harmful changes in the modified plant, create unexpected environmental effects or make plants more susceptible to some pests and less susceptible to others.

Meanwhile, some people simply are confused about what GMO and GE actually mean.

“In common usage, GMO and GE indicate that a plant or a seed or even an animal has a gene or genes that are different from the normal variety,” said Steve Beckendorf, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “This could be by inserting a foreign gene, or by activating, inactivating or changing the expression of a normal gene.”

“The terms GMO and GE are interchangeable,” he continued. “It could be that some marketing people somewhere have decided that one of the terms is preferable or less objectionable. To me the two terms refer to a distinction without a difference.”

“GMO is just a newer term for genetic engineering,” added Rob Griesbach, a research geneticist and deputy assistant administrator for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. GMO and GE have been used interchangeably for about 10 years, he pointed out.

People also shouldn’t confuse GMO and GE with selective plant breeding with pollen, said Amanda Campbell, manager of display gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “In this type of breeding, growers pollinate plants with desirable traits with other plants with desirable traits, grow out the seed batches and select the best out of those until they achieve a marketable plant,” she said.

“Cross pollinating plants over and over in this manner is a way to achieve higher than normal yield or pest or disease resistance but does not involve inserting foreign genes.” she added. F2 hybrid broccoli is an example of a popular food product that has been created by manipulation achieved through cross pollination, she continued. But it is not considered genetically engineered because genes have not been inserted into the genetic material of the broccoli, she said.

“For the extreme purists, though, anything but heirloom seeds have been modified,” Campbell said. The seed of hybridized plants does not come true because those seeds will not germinate the same as the parents. The seed of heirloom plants does come true, producing plants like their parents, she explained. “So for home gardeners, that (growing heirlooms) may be the more economical option since you can save heirloom seeds yourself,” she concluded.

Since their commercial introduction in 1996, genetically engineered crops have become popular with U.S. farmers. Soybeans, cotton and corn have been the most widely adopted crops for GMO and GE, according to the USDA. These three crops make up the bulk of the acres planted in GE crops in the United States, said Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, a USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) agricultural economist. GE crops accounted for 93 percent of soybean acres, 88 percent of corn acres and 94 percent of all planted cotton acres in 2012, he said. Other GE crops commercially grown in the United States are canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya and squash, but ERS does not have statistics on those GE crops.

Some animal products such as milk, meat and eggs may be impacted by GMO and GE crops because these crops are used as feed for livestock.

Who wants to know?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates production and labeling of genetically engineered foods. Wary shoppers who want to know if food in their groceries contain GMO or GE foods have no way of knowing because the FDA does not require special labeling of bioengineered foods as a class of foods. The FDA policy, adopted in 1992, states that the FDA has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding, said Arthur Whitmore, an FDA health communications specialist.

In June of last year, the American Medical Association, the largest physician organization in the United States and one that many consumers associate with safeguarding public health, agreed. At a meeting of its House of Delegates in Chicago, the AMA adopted a report that said “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.”

Without labeling, consumers are left to guess what canned, packaged or fresh food they buy at the grocery is from GMO or GE plant sources. Chances are, though, that much of what they put in their carts has been altered.

About 70 percent of items in U.S. grocery stores contain ingredients made from genetically modified organisms, said Brian Kennedy, director of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “Basically, anything that contains corn, corn syrup or soybeans has been genetically altered, ” he said.

With a growing world population that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates will rise to 9 billion in 2050 from the 6.8 billion people on the planet today, the question of whether GMO and GE foods are the key to human survival is causing a clash of ethics and biotechnology. It’s a battle that’s being fought from farm rows to supermarket aisles to government corridors around the world. Ground zero in that battle just may be at the ballot box in Washington state.

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