There was a time when food was food. You ate it and were glad of it. What could be more “natural” than that? But that was back in earlier times when most food came either from your own farm or from stores that bought food from nearby farms. Fast forward to today, and food has become a sometimes complicated and oftentimes controversial topic — all the more so since 1994 with the introduction of a genetically engineered tomato variety, Flavr Savr, which was developed to delay ripening. As the first genetically engineered food to be sold commercially, it opened a new era in agriculture. Before that, new types of fruits and vegetables were developed by breeding varieties with desired qualities with each other to produce hybrids that were more productive and many times larger, tastier, and easier to grow. But in that sort of traditional breeding method, the genetic material (the DNA or RNA) of the plants wasn’t deliberately altered in ways that would not occur naturally through mating or cell division. But with genetic engineering, all of that came to be, and some new players entered the scene. We’re talking about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. And we’re still talking about them, only this time it’s gone a step further than whether foods containing GMOs should bear labels informing consumers of the fact — proposals narrowly rejected recently by voters in California and Washington. Now it’s about whether foods containing GMOs will be allowed to be labeled as “natural.” ‘Big Food’ plans petition to FDA Last month, “Big Food,” in the form of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade organization that represents more than 300 businesses, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advising that it intends to petition the agency to allow foods containing GMOs to be labeled as “natural.” Not surprisingly, this has triggered controversy in the industry and among consumers. In some cases, outrage would be a good word for it. “It’s a sneaky tactic,” said Sandi Tenneson, who grew up on beef and dairy farms in Western Washington. “It shouldn’t be allowed. The only label that means anything right now is ‘organic’ and maybe ‘grass fed.’ They need to clarify what ‘natural’ is.” Foods labeled as “organic” are not allowed to contain any GMOs, according to USDA’s organic certification standards. Examples of GMO ingredients found in many processed foods are genetically modified corn, sugar, soy, and oils made from genetically engineered crops. That’s significant because up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients. In fact, according to the Non-GMO Project, as of 2012, 93 percent of soy, 88 percent of field corn (corn raised for seed or livestock), 94 percent of cotton and more than 90 percent of canola seed and sugar beets planted in the United States are genetically engineered. In other words, people are — and have been — eating a lot of foods containing GMOs. Yet at the same time, consumers are increasingly seeking out what they perceive to be natural foods and products. Out in the marketplace, foods labeled as “natural” accounted for about 10 percent of all grocery sales in 2013, while organic food and products made up about 5 percent of all grocery sales that year, according to a report by the Organic Consumers Association. It’s no secret in the food industry that these categories continue to rack up sales faster than those in other categories. “Big Food” is aware of this, and it also knows that there are about 65 class-action lawsuits filed against food manufacturers over whether foods with ingredients derived from biotechnology (GMOs) can be labeled as “natural.” Some of these lawsuits have resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements for aggrieved consumers who felt they had been duped by the “natural” labeling. The problem is that FDA has no official definition for the meaning of “natural” on food labels. However, its website does offer this information: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” A patchwork of regulations Legislatures in 26 states have been considering whether ingredients derived from biotechnology should be labeled and whether they belong in “natural” foods. Last summer, for example, Connecticut passed legislation on labeling that would make it illegal to use the word “natural” on the packaging of any food product containing biotech ingredients — legislation that Governor Dannel Malloy signed on Dec. 11. To avoid a patchwork of regulations on this, the GMA wants FDA “to become involved in ensuring consistent and uniform rules for foods with ‘natural’ claims and ingredients derived from biotechnology.” There’s also this irony to consider: By 2018, grocery giant Whole Foods Market will require all foods that contain GMOs sold in its U.S. and Canadian stores to be labeled as such. If FDA allows foods with GMOs to be labeled as “natural,” consumers will likely be confused by two seemingly contradictory labels on the same package. Referring to its request that “natural” labels be used for foods that include GMOs, the GMA points out that FDA’s 1992 policy on biotech foods states that they are no different from foods developed through traditional plant breeding. “There is nothing ‘synthetic or artificial’ about foods derived from biotechnology, as that term has been applied by the agency,” states the group’s letter to FDA. What was that again? Kaare Melby of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) disagrees with the GMA’s stand on this. GMOs are a combination of DNA that would never exist in nature, he told Food Safety News. Biotech giant Monsanto shared some similar thoughts when it described GMOs in its glossary of scientific terms: “Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism.” In an email to Food Safety News, Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotechnology trade association, said that, “BIO has not yet taken a formal position on the issue, as this is a really a question for the food industry since biotech companies don’t label foods.” A ‘David and Goliath battle’ “Biotech bullies and junk-food giants” is how Ronnie Cummins of the OCA describes those leading the charge for “natural” labels on foods containing GMOs. In an essay entitled, “GMO and ‘Natural’ Food Fight: Treacherous Terrain,” Cummins warns that a passionate grassroots movement will fight back in what he refers to as a “David and Goliath” battle. Earlier this year, the OCA joined with allies in the organic and natural health community to launch a nationwide campaign in the U.S. to “expose and eliminate what it calls “the rampant ‘natural’ labeling and marketing fraud that has slowed the growth of America’s $30-billion organic sector.” “Routine mislabeling and marketing fraud has confused millions of U.S. consumers and has enabled the so-called ‘natural’ foods and products sector to grow into a $60-billion-a-year powerhouse, garnering twice as many sales in 2012 as certified organic products,” states the organization’s press release about the formation of the Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance. Adding a surprise twist to all of this, General Mills, Inc., has started producing GMO-free Cheerios. The company expects this new product, which will bear the label, “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients,” to be available to consumers “shortly.” However, this change does not affect other General Mills brands such as Honey Nut Cheerios. What about food safety? FDA has said that because GMO foods don’t materially differ from other types of foods, they don’t need to be labeled as such. But worldwide, more than 50 countries require foods with GMOs to be labeled. In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, BIO’s spokesperson Batra said that “every credible scientific organization in the world has weighed in on this.” Those organizations include the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, FDA, and a number of other medical and scientific groups. The consensus is that billions of people have eaten foods with GMOs for years without obvious evidence of a problem. “They’ve all concluded that genetically engineered foods are the same as conventionally grown and organic foods,” Batra said. Some of the scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science argued in a dissenting opinion last November that the absence of evidence of ill effects doesn’t mean there aren’t any. And they pointed out that FDA’s testing program pertaining to GMOs is voluntary. Despite this swirl of controversy, GMO crops continue to march across the landscape. According to a February 2013 report issued by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a record 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries were growing biotech crops on more than 420 million acres. Also according to the report, this represents a “stunning 100-fold increase in hectares (a hectare is about 2.471 acres) planted since 1996, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.” The U.S. remains the top country in biotech acreage, with more than 172 million acres of biotech crops planted in 2012.