The Economic Argument for Expanding GMO Regulation in America
The necessity to grow crops faster and more efficiently has long been a goal for the agriculture industry. Now, through the development of GMOs, this goal is being achieved. However, many critics doubt the reputation of GMOs, instead arguing that we must be more wary of the relatively new science. Overall, the general trend among scholarly authors is that GMOs should be regulated more strictly, as the benefits of increased GMO regulation outweigh the state of the current system. Most scholarly discussions have moved past the perspective that GMOs should be regulated because of health concerns and instead, cultivate the idea that GMOs should be regulated based on economic factors. Because of this, in conducting my research I have chosen to focus mainly on the economic risks GMOs pose to the economy as opposed to the health concerns commonly discussed among GMO critics. By taking a look at how scholars address issues such as the the state of the current GMO regulatory system, how GMOs agitate a fragile international trade market, and how GMOs have the potential to upset interstate commerce, it is easy to see that GMOs need to be regulated more strictly.
For thousands of years, nature has controlled the success of the agriculture industry. However, within the past several decades, modern technology has begun to wean the world’s agriculture industry off its dependence on the cooperation of nature. One of the largest recent innovations has been the development of genetically modified organisms or, GMOs. GMOs are plants which have been genetically modified to tolerate conditions or chemicals which would normally be detrimental to their survival. However, many opponents of GMOs disapprove of their widespread use, arguing that because of insufficient government regulations GMOs have the potential to do more harm than good. The federal government should more strictly regulate GMOs because of confusion between regulatory bodies, how GMOs effect international trade and how they carry the risk of disrupting commerce within the United States.
GMOs should be regulated more strictly because the current system contains many overlaps and gaps and cannot efficiently monitor the thriving industry of genetic engineering. Rebecca Bratspies (2013) addresses these shortcomings in her article “Is Anyone Regulating? The Curious State of GMO Governance in the United States” when she says, “At least ten different laws and numerous agency regulations and guidelines are pressed into service to regulate GE plants, animals, and microorganisms. Each of these laws predates the advent of biotechnology, and they reflect widely different regulatory approaches and procedures” (p. 931).
"Genetically modified organisms have repeatedly been show to possess substantial potential to cause damage to the economy of the United States and, in light of these dangers, Americans should push for a comprehensive and effective federal regulation scheme which protects the future of American agriculture."
As Bratspies shows, the current agencies which oversee U.S GMO regulation are outdated and no longer directly relate to the regulation of GMOs. With the responsibilities allocated out between multiple agencies, no comprehensive method of assessment and regulation exists.
As a result, the regulatory framework surrounding GMOs is imbalanced. In its infancy, the GMO industry was small, manageable and its effects could not be seen or felt by the public.
However, thirty years later, its billion-dollar footprint is seen on nearly every store shelf and in countless agriculture sectors. The current system is flawed, requiring broader and stricter regulation to ensure that the rapidly expanding genetic engineering industry is receiving the attention it requires. As GMOs begin to slip through the cracks in the regulatory bureaucracy, the imperfections of the current system come to light through the harms seen by many farmers.
Regulation of GMOs should be tightened because due to the gaps in the regulatory process environmental problems have arisen as a result of GMO integration into the agricultural market. Rebecca Bratspies (2013) is again quoted saying, “The United States regulatory system for genetically engineered crops is riddled with major gaps and omissions. Omitted from the regulatory inquiry are systemic environmental issues” (p. 955-956). Here, Bratspies again reinforces the fact that there is little organized regulation of genetically modified crops and that environmental issues are not addressed through current regulation schemes. Bratspies concludes that,
Without consistent and effective regulation, GMOs have spread throughout American agriculture, polluting the environment and causing unforeseen damages. These damages could have been prevented had the regulatory agencies been more thorough in their investigation before releasing them for agricultural use. However, in the wake of the discrepancies in regulation, new problems have been cultivated which are damaging to the environment. These concerns are not limited strictly to American soil though, the contamination of GMO crops with conventional crops is beginning to have international consequences as well.
Steven Mufson (2013), a writer for The Washington Post reported how in 2013, the United States agriculture market was dealt a tremendous blow when Japan and South Korea suspended wheat imports from the United States (para. 4). This decision was made in the wake of the discovery that GMOs crops had been found contaminating regular crops. The suspension marked an enormous setback not only for the wheat industry but American agriculture as a whole. This laps in oversight severely damaged American agriculture’s international reputation. Following the discovery, the European Union urged its members to closely monitor their imports for contamination and American exports were closely scrutinized on an international stage. This is only one example of GMOs effecting the international economy which in total has cost billions of dollars by throwing international agriculture markets into disarray.
GMOs carry enormous risks to America’s international agriculture trade and because current regulations do not adequately contain the production of GMOs to within the United States, they deserve stricter regulation. The United States is one of a handful of countries that argue the safety of GMOs and, as a result, are relatively tolerant of GMOs. Most other countries, however, do not share America’s opinion. Consequently, international policies are generally much more stringent. Kyndra Lundquist (2015) in her article “Unapproved Genetically Modified Corn: Its What’s for Dinner” outlines the risks when she says, “GMOs also have the potential to affect the global economy, largely because there are several sectors of the world’s population who are opposed to GMOs, and GMOs, like all plants to not respect borders, having the potential to spread or cross-contaminate with other plants” (p. 828). Because of the international community’s opinion toward GMOs, they pose a significant threat to the global economy.
This is largely the result of how plants behave naturally through processes such as pollination. Because of these natural interactions, crops can be difficult to contain to a single field and may possibly contaminate bordering fields that are destined for foreign markets. This is exactly what occurred in the case of Japan and South Korea. This idea is built upon by Arne Holst-Jenson (2008) in her article “GMO testing – trade, labeling or safety first?” when she warns of the dangers of unapproved GMOs by saying, “Unauthorized GMOs altogether pose a significant socioeconomic risk through their potential effects on trade and trust in industry and authorities” (p. 858).
When genetically engineered plants that have not been approved for sale, or have avoided inspections altogether, enter the market accidentally, the risk for how these GMOs may effect trade with other countries becomes a concern. Because of the strict regulations seen in other countries, regulation agencies must be very cautious to be sure the products being exported are not contaminated with GMOs. As seen in the case of Japan, a slip up will cause unknown amounts of damage to both the pocket and face of the agriculture industry. As the world’s leading agricultural exporter, America’s standards for GMO regulation should be thorough and above reproach, however, this is not the case.
It is imperative that the United States more closely regulate agriculture exports because of the negative effects shown through historical precedent, however the United States fails to address these concerns with their current regularity approach. The idea that current regulation does not adequately address the effects GMO contamination has on a foreign market is shown in the article, “Unapproved Genetically Modified Corn: Its What’s for Dinner” when author Kendra Lundquist (2015) states, “The current U.S regulatory scheme for unapproved GM products is weak because it fails to adequately address the ability of GM products, unlike their natural counterparts, to disrupt global markets [and] cause farmers economic loss” (p. 836). When genetic engineering first began, instead of creating an entirely new organization for the regulation of a relatively new science, the duties of regulation were divided among the most relevant preexisting administrations. While this may have been sufficient three decades ago, today, exports to foreign countries, where GMOs are considered as unsafe, are not required to undergo more strenuous tests to ensure that what is exiting the country is not tainted with GMOs.
As made clear through the occurrence with Japan, many gaps exist in America’s regulation process and must be addressed by regulatory agencies. Later in her article, Lundquist (2015) supports the notion of tightening regulation by pointing out that, “The United States can avoid the economic costs that GM escapes cause in the domestic and international agriculture markets as well as litigation arising from these incidents through improved oversight” (p. 851). Here, the author argues that increased federal oversight through regulation will alleviate the concerns of economic damages by more strictly monitoring the production of products leaving the country. With so much of the world opposed to GMOs, America’s indiscrete attitude toward regulation should be concerning. A continuation of current regulatory practices is only setting America up for another economic trade blow and it is only a matter of time before the recent history with Japan is repeated. Under regulation of GMOs pose a distinct threat to the foreign economy of American agriculture, however, the effects of GMO regulatory deficiencies may soon be felt within the domestic sphere of the United States as well.
Many Americans have long argued for the mandatory labeling of GMO products and, as a result of public opinion, many states have recently pushed for the regulation of GMOs within their state. As documented by Morgan Helme (2013) in her article “Genetically Modified Food Fight: The FDA Should Step Up to the Regulatory Plate so States Do Not Cross the Constitutional Line” as many as twenty-five states have considered labeling requirements for products containing GMOs, however, no state has been able to pass measures that would implement GMO labeling (p. 358). The federal government has long maintained the position that GMOs do not require extensive regulation. The reason for this, as Helmes (2013) points out, is that “Despite consumer support for GMO labeling, the FDA does not require it without a showing of adverse health effects” (p. 363). However, many states relentlessly advocate the labeling of GMO products. If the states are successful in their push for individual regulation, a variety of issues would arise that would be damaging to the economy of the United States.
Cooperation between states is vital for commerce to freely flow from one state to another. Individual state regulations which differ from one state to another have the potential to effect certain economies within interstate commerce. To avoid this, the federal government should unilaterally regulate the labeling of all GMO products within the United States. While commenting on Vermont’s action to introduce mandatory GMO labeling laws, Jim Kling (2014), author of “Labeling for Better or Worse” comments that, “Companies would have to choose between dropping the Vermont market, developing a Vermont-only label for thousands of products or changing labels nationwide.
Companies argue that the latter two choices would be burdensome to interstate commerce” (p. 1180). When an individual state requires special labeling it is no longer conducive or profitable for food producers to market to that state. This is because the cost of modifying the current infrastructure to align with the mandated segregation of GMO crops would significantly increase production costs for producers. In essence, by adding select requirements for GMO business within an individual state, most producers are discouraged from business interactions with that state because the cost is simply too high.
Many states control huge percentages of production in select agricultural products and when prominent production states regulate themselves any adverse effects would rebound across the entire market. According to Helmes (2013), if large agricultural states such as California implemented statewide labeling standards, nearly twelve percent of the food market within the United States would be effected. In turn, companies would have to weigh the cost of changing their labels for one state to the cost of avoiding California as a whole (p. 372). Changes in regulation of states that lead America in the production of agricultural commodities would have national implications and the increased complexity of interstate commerce may result in untold economic weakening. Remarking on this idea of state regulation, Helmes (2015) furthers the argument by stating that, “The impact may be magnified if multiple states pass different labeling requirements, which would require packaging to contains several variously worded GMO warnings in order to comply with all regulations” (p. 373).
If each state were to regulate individually, much confusion would be generated between the states due to differing or contradictory regulations. When multiple states create individual regulations, the issue of interstate regulation complication is compounded and food producers would be put in an increasingly tighter situation. Producers would have to create individual labels to correlate with specific state regulations, resulting in previously unnecessary expenditures for producers. Ultimately, because of increased costs, producers may decide to terminate business to specially regulated states. Such terminations would damage that state’s economy. Overarching government implemented standards, providing voluntary regulation, would satisfy states appeals for regulation and would alleviate potential confusion among producers as well as maintain the economic balance between states.
The European Union (EU) has long held the opinion that GMOs should be regulated because they are harmful, however, in the United States the call for regulation does not stem from fear. Rather, it originates simply from the desire to know what is in the food people consume. Prior to the mandatory regulation of GMOs in the European Union, genetically modified food faced a barrage of public criticism and, upon its mandatory labeling, GMO products nearly became extinct in European countries (Helme, 374).
Agencies should implement regulations on a voluntary basis to prevent an attitude of fear toward GMOs and to help avoid the alienation of GMOs on the agriculture market in the United States. In most regards, the American public is very subdued in their criticism of GMO products and they do not share the paranoia seen in Europe. With the American public still moderately tolerant of GMO products, regulatory agencies should introduce voluntary labeling to avert the catastrophe following European regulation. As seen in Europe and noted by Helmes (2013) in her article, “When coupled with a negative perception of GMOs…mandatory labeling can push genetically modified (GM) food out of the market” (p. 380). Helmes echoes this later when she explains how mandatory labeling in Europe effectively barred GMO food products out of the European market (p. 381).
Fear and speculation can be powerful motivators and under their influence the European public distanced themselves from GMO products and drove them off the shelves. These actions ended any future for the GMO market in Europe. American agriculture is overwhelmingly dominated by genetic engineering and traces of GMO products can be seen in thousands of products. Essentially, GMOs are the bread and butter of American agriculture. If Americans were to respond in the same way as seen in Europe, the agriculture industry would likely loose billions of dollars, causing incalculable damage to the American economy. By responding to American’s call for GMO labeling with unilateral federal regulation, situations such as those seen in Europe can be avoided.
Not everyone agrees that GMOs should be regulated however. Some proponents of genetic engineering argue that GMOs have not been found to genetically alter plants which would result in hazardous crops, as such GMOs do not require extensive regulation. Author’s Alan McHughen and Stuart Smyth (2008) advocate the safety of genetically engineered crops in their article “US regulatory system for genetically modified [genetically modified organism (GMO), rDNA or transgenic] crop cultivars” when they relate that the incidences of hazardous crops being created by unexpected genetic changes is extremely low (p. 3). GMOs have not been found to be inherently harmful and cases of harmful GMOs occurring naturally in the environment are very uncommon.
This apparent safety has resulted in regulatory agencies placing an unusual amount of trust in producers to identify and report problems to the appropriate authorities. Commenting on this process, McHughen and Smyth (2008) note that it is, “A system that has worked remarkably well considering the lack of hazards reported for new crop cultivars over the years” (p. 3). According to the authors, this system of checks and balances is an effective preventative measure against potential harms associated with genetically modified organisms. The problem with this approach however is that the regulatory agencies have failed to consider what motivation producers would have to report incidences of hazardous crops.
Regulatory agencies have essentially given producers the power to regulate themselves. This may be the reason hazards of genetic engineering have not appeared in recent years. Producers could be protecting their business by ignoring concerns they are supposed to report. Bratspies (2013) comments on the effects of a leniently regulated market when she says, “Private actors, motivated by short-term interests, are able to engage in conduct that imposes risks on wider society without any democratic consideration of the acceptability of those risks” (p. 926).
Producers eliminate the possibility of regulating themselves because increased regulation surrounding their business may cut into their profits. Bratspies continues saying, “It is precisely because individuals make decisions based on individual and short-term considerations that environmental regulation is necessary” (p. 943). Producers trying to make a profit cannot be trusted with the safety of the products they produce. Because individuals often act in response to personal interests, the notion that they would purposely report situations that could hurt their business is an irrational conclusion. As such, regulation should be controlled by a separate, unbiased organization such as the federal government.
GMOs should be more closely regulated by federal agencies because current standards do not address a variety of concerns seen in the status quo. Although further investigation into the necessity for stricter GMO regulation is required, many issues have been addressed which together suggest that the regulatory processes surrounding GMOs are in desperate need of improvement and strengthening. First, regulatory agencies overlooking GMOs are ineffective and outdated. Because of this they are no longer capable to effectively monitor the rapidly expanding industry of genetic engineering and many environmental problems have begun to arise. Additionally, existing regulations fail to address the effect GMOs play in international trade and, as seen through past precedent, the potential for economic damage to occur should never be underestimated.
Finally, commerce between states has the potential to be damaged if the regulation of GMOs is not strengthened through federally mandated unilateral regulation. Genetically modified organisms have repeatedly been show to possess substantial potential to cause damage to the economy of the United States and, in light of these dangers, Americans should push for a comprehensive and effective federal regulation scheme which protects the future of American agriculture.
Bratspies, R. M. (2013). Is Anyone Regulating? The Curious State of GMO Governance in the United States. Vermont Law Review, 37(4), 923-956.
Helme, M. A. (2013). Genetically Modified Food Fight: The FDA Should Step Up to the Regulatory Plate so States Do Not Cross the Constitutional Line. Minnesota Law Review, 98(1), 356-384.
Holst-Jensen, A. (2008). GMO testing—trade, labeling or safety first?. Nature Biotechnology, 26(8), 858-859.
Kling, J. (2014). Labeling for Better or Worse. Nature Biotechnology, 32(12), 1180-1183.
Lundquist, K. A. (2015). Unapproved Genetically Modified Corn: It's What's for Dinner. Iowa Law Review, 100(2), 825-851.
McHughen, A., & Smyth, S. (2008). US regulatory system for genetically modified [genetically modified organism (GMO), rDNA or transgenic] crop cultivars. Plant Biotechnology Journal, 6(1), 2-12.
Mufson, S. (2013, May 30). Unapproved genetically modified wheat from Monsanto found in Oregon field. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/unapproved-genetically-modified-wheat-from-monsanto-found-in-oregon-field/2013/05/30/93fe7abe-c95e-11e2-8da7-d274bc611a47_story.html