By Tom Spencer, Staff Writer

On Nov. 4, voters in Colorado and Oregon rejected bills that would require food manufactured using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such, report The Denver Post and The Oregonian.

This is the latest event in a debate that has spread across America but first gained serious traction in Vermont where Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill requiring such labeling in May, according to the Burlington Free Press.

Concerns over GMOs are evident in New Hampshire’s Seacoast community as well. Local farms have been responding to questions about GMOs for months.

Tendercrop Farm in Dover has been besieged by calls from customers who wanted to know if the farm’s corn is free of GMOs, according to Sue Costa, the general manager of Tendercrop Farm.

“All summer long, people were calling, wanting to know if our corn is GMO free, which it is,” Costa said.

Costa also stated that while Tendercrop does not have organic certification, it uses no GMOs. Costa herself does not personally recommend the use of GMOs.

Part of the confusion in this argument is the fact that people use the term GMO broadly, according to Dr. Thomas Davis, professor of plant biology and genetics at the University of New Hampshire. 

For example, RosBREED, a research project at UNH to increase the size, health, and taste of fruit using genetic characteristics, does not fall under Davis’s idea of a GMO.

“The RosBREED strawberries are not GMO,” Davis said. “Although the term GMO is used by people in different ways, in my view it describes manipulations in which DNA is first isolated from some organism(s), manipulated as DNA molecules by biochemical means outside of the living organism, and then introduced into a recipient organism.”  

“The RosBREED marker assisted breeding approach does not introduce manipulated DNA molecules into plants: It is simply an application of DNA ‘fingerprinting.’ Similarly, when humans get DNA testing done on themselves, they are not being genetically manipulated,” Davis said.

UNH’s dining halls does not focus on using non-GMO products, according to Jon Plodzik, the director of dining at UNH. Plodzik stated that GMO food is not labeled, and the only way for UNH to avoid such products would be to buy organic food only, which would not be cost effective.

“As such, it is impossible for us to tell and use products that don’t, unless we switched to organic products which would be cost prohibitive,” Plodzik said.

While the dining halls may not make avoiding GMOs a priority, UNH’s nutrition counseling service provides another perspective.

The term ‘healthy’ is very broad and means different things to different people,” said Maria Caplan, a registered dietician and nutrition counselor at UNH.

Caplan acknowledged that while eating organic food is healthy, complications can arise in verifying the authenticity of the label.

“Some organic food is now imported from China where ‘organic’ foods cannot be ‘checked’ upon to make sure they are following the same organic rules as closer American organic foods,” Caplan said.

Beyond vague sourcing, finance is the immediate obstacle for most people who would like to eat organic food, according to Caplan.

“Organic foods can be very expensive, and if we are talking students on a budget — getting in fruits and veggies that are GMO are better than no fruits and veggies at all — since GMO have been recognized as safe,” Caplan said.

Caplan offered eating local, seasonal food as a possible solution to the problem of eating naturally on a budget.

“…it is important to support local agriculture and eat in season!” Caplan said.  “We are not meant to have tomatoes, grapes, avocados, etc. year round. If we go to the plethora of local markets right here in Durham area, we can find produce in season, that has been grown locally at a cheaper price.” 

Caplan recommended eating in season whenever possible, because it is easier to determine the origin of food from local markets. She noted that GMOs are safe according to the government but still recommended organic food as a way to avoid unhealthy pesticides.

On the broad scale, the scientific community is ambivalent about both the concerns over GMOs, and the implications of federally mandated labels.

On Oct. 20, 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a statement declaring that there was no evidence the use of biotechnology to improve crops is harmful to human health.

The AAAS also expressed concern that the labeling of GMOs by the FDA implied an inherent risk in eating the food.

“Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers,” the report said.