GMO regulation in the United States: a cautionary tale

As genetically modified organisms penetrate the Australian market, regulators cannot be complacent

On May 20, people marched in global protest against Monsanto in over 200 cities around the world.

Based in the United States, Monsanto is the largest bio-technology agricultural business and producer of genetically modified (GM) seeds in the world, having expanded its sale of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America over the past two decades.

The GMO debate is contentious. GMO advocates point to enhanced productivity, better nutrition and cost-effectiveness. However, concerns remain over the adequacy of scientific research on the long-term environmental and health impacts of GMOs. Fears predominantly exist in regards to antibiotic resistance and increased cancer risks (particularly due to the use of glysophate in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup) and the role of GMOs in killing off seed diversity, which is known to reduce crop diseases and is fundamental to our ecosystem and biodiversity.

Nonetheless, the GMO industry has continued to permeate the international market at an alarmingly rapid rate since the 1990s, albeit discreetly. These concerns highlight the need to be vigilant about whether the regulatory frameworks for the industry are abreast with the rate of GMO integration into society.

The case of the US in particular provides a cautionary tale. Between 75 and 80 per cent of foods in the US contain GM ingredients, which is an astounding proportion considering GM foods were only introduced in the 1990s.

Despite having the largest market for GM foods in the world, labelling laws for GM products were not passed until July last year, and the requirements under the laws are controversial. The legislation narrowly defines genetic modification in a way which exempts certain newer biotech methods from labelling, and the substantive labelling requirements are obscure. The law requires that food packages display an “electronic code”, text label, or symbol indicating whether they contain GMOs. This allows corporations to contain (or rather conceal) the relevant information in a QR barcode, making it inaccessible to the quarter of Americans without smartphones or reliable internet access.

The controversial law did not go unnoticed — over 250,000 Americans petitioned against the bill. Senator Bernie Sanders described the legislation as “confusing, misleading and unenforceable”. Tellingly, Vermont legislation implementing a much stricter labelling scheme was passed just prior to the federal law. The federal law overrode Vermont’s and prevented states from further legislating on the matter.

Nevertheless, this is not as disturbing as a law passed in 2013 dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by critics. The law effectively set a precedent that put Monsanto and other biotech companies beyond judicial review for six months by preventing federal courts from ceasing the sale or planting of GMOs, even in circumstances where the courts found public health to be at risk. Further troubling is the fact that the provision was tacked on 73 pages into an appropriation bill, and many members of congress were apparently not even aware of its existence when voting on the bill.

The GMO industry in Australia is not (yet) comparable to the US: relatively few genetically modified agricultural crops have been approved for use in Australia and GM food labelling is mandatory with certain exceptions, such as for highly-refined products. However, Australia is ranked sixth among the top biotechnology countries in the Asia-Pacific and there are more than 400 biotechnology companies operating in Australia, a significant portion of which operate in agriculture. GM cotton, carnations and canola have been approved for commercial use in Australia, and are not insubstantial parts of their respective broader industries (more than 99% of cotton planted in Australia is GM).

While GMOs don’t play as significant a role in Australia, the US is a salient reminder of the need to be conscious of how rapidly GMOs can enter the food industry and of the importance of staying up to date with industry legislation.