Better Ingredients, Better Food [Security]:
A Conversation with a Brandeis Alum about Global Food Production and the Debate Between GMOs and Organic Foods
By: Anesha Blakey
Earlier this month, Brandeis School of Law alumnus, Marshall L. Matz, was honored by the University of Louisville as the 2017 Law Alumni Fellow. After celebrating this honor at the 2017 Wilson Wyatt Alumni Awards luncheon and banquet dinner, Mr. Matz kindly took the time to visit with students, staff, and faculty at his alma mater. I had the pleasure of attending this speaking engagement, during which Mr. Matz elaborated on his illustrious and varied career path.
Originally hailing from Connecticut, Mr. Matz began his legal career in South Dakota after graduating from Brandeis in 1971. Although South Dakota seemed like an unlikely starting place, Mr. Matz’s 40+ year-long career has taken him all over the United States and numerous countries around the world. In addition to private practice, Mr. Matz has also worked in various government positions, including the opportunity to serve as the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee of the Obama for America presidential campaign.
As a result of his dedication to food research and agriculture law, many students and faculty concentrated their questions in response to Mr. Matz’s most recent opinion article, entitled “The Missing Link in Global Food Security.” In this article, Mr. Matz provides a wealth of information related to global food production by detailing the findings provided in the 2018 Senate Agriculture Appropriations Report and the World Food Program’s 2017 report on World Food Assistance. One such staggering statistic noted in the 2018 Senate Agriculture Appropriations Report provides that “global food production will have to increase by 60 percent to meet the needs of 9 billion people forecast for 2050.” As a result of such facts, questions and conversation generated by attendees turned to the debate between GMOs and organic food.
Before delving into the details of how the GMO vs. organic food debate plays into global food security, some additional information may be helpful. The term “GMO” is an acronym for genetically modified organisms. GMOs are also referred to as “GE,” which means genetically engineered. Contrastingly, organic foods are foods that “do not contain any hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings” that do not naturally exist in the food. By definition alone, organic foods may seem healthier. However, that is not necessarily true, nor is it the overwhelming general consensus from consumers. According to a nationwide poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of adults said that “organically grown produce is healthier than conventionally grown produce, while 41 percent said there’s no difference.” Thus, although it is clear that there is a distinction between the production of GMOs and organic foods, both methods of food production have similarities that may result in an answer to global food security.
GMOs were introduced into the food supply in the 1990s. However, it was not until 2000 that the United States Department of Agriculture banned GMOs from certified organic acres. As a result of its implementation, the ban seemingly gave rise to the GMO vs. organic food debate, which has promulgated a further discussion centered on labeling.
Outside the United States, GMOs are banned as food ingredients, particularly throughout Europe. In fact, at least 64 countries, including many developed nations, require labeling of GMOs. In the United States, however, it was not until recently that Congress passed a law requiring a GMO labeling bill. As a result, prior to 2016 many individual states took it upon themselves to educate their citizens about labeling the ingredients in their food. “In 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed GE labeling laws” and in 2014, 35 bills were introduced throughout 20 states. Now, after passage of the labeling bill, GMO ingredients will be available via a QR code, which consumers may scan to learn more information about the ingredients.
For lack of a better phrase or term, GMOs get a bad label. However, for the sake of global food security, it’s time to reinvent the negative stereotype and find commonalities between GMOs and organic food. Scientifically, genetic engineering is an extension of a DNA process. In the past, however, genetic engineering has resulted in “superweeds,” which are crops that developed an immunity to certain herbicides and thus, result in the use of an abundance of chemicals on crops that negatively affect the environment. As such, we must change the debate from GMOs vs. organic foods and instead, educate consumers on good vs. bad GMOs. In fact, genetic engineering can be a “powerful tool that can help us farm responsibly and sustainably by minimizing damage to the environment and prioritizing the health of both people and animals – the precise goals of organic farming.” Thus, the agricultural solution to solving global food security may be the organic GMO. With this type of food production, genetic engineering does not have to result in superweeds that negatively affect the environment. On the contrary, crops may be genetically engineered to adhere to agriculturally challenged environments, while preserving the natural and organic elements of the crop.
Another aspect of global food security that could benefit from the organic GMO solution involves reducing food loss and waste. As you may have read in last week’s blog post, America is the world’s biggest culprit when it comes to food waste, discarding “$160 billion worth of produce annually.” The blog post goes on to provide the astonishing comparison that with all of that food wasted, 41 million Americans suffer from hunger. On a global scale, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports “that one third of food produced for human consumption  – approximately 2.9 trillion pounds per year – is lost or wasted,” resulting in almost 800 million people suffering from hunger around the world. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency adds that massive amounts of food waste, including the 133 billion pounds of food supply wasted annually in the United States, “produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.” However, the production of organic GMOs would result in less bruising and browning of crops, which would likely lead to a reduction in the significant number of unaesthetically pleasing food that is unnecessarily discarded.
For some, labeling may be an issue. However, for everyone, global food security may be a problem in the not-so-distant future. So, whether your diet strictly consists of organic food only, or if you prefer to purchase foods with a non-GMO label, or quite frankly, even if you think GMOs add a little something extra to your favorite dish, the truth is that the future of global food security requires a new attitude about methods of food production. Thus, instead of continuing to draw lines in the sand and labels in the grocery aisles, let’s rewrite the narrative, educate ourselves on various forms of genetic engineering, and reap the benefits of organic GMOs for our health and our environment.
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