GMOs or genetically modified organisms have gained more media attention recently, as several U.S. states have approved or proposed laws regulating the labeling of food for GMOs. While Maine and Connecticut approved such laws this summer through their state legislatures, California and Washington put the matter in the hands of voters, who struck the bills down. Meanwhile, New York, Vermont, Hawaii, Oregon and Colorado seek to propose similar bills during next year’s election cycle. For comparison, all countries in the European Union and most countries in Asia require the labeling of genetically modified foods.
Ever since the U.S. started introducing GMOs into our food supply in 1996, supporters and opponents have fiercely debated the benefits and dangers of producing and consuming genetically modified foods. GMOs are living organisms, like plants and animals, that have had their genetic code altered. Genetically modified corn or soybeans, for example, are engineered to be more drought-tolerant, herbicide-resistant, and able to produce proteins that are toxic to conventional insect pests. The Grocery Manufactures Association estimates that 75% to 80% of conventional processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients.
Proponents of such regulations argue that consumers have a right to know to “make educated food purchases and dietary choices.” Yet, the federal government is reluctant to implement a national labeling law mainly because there has been no strong evidence that GMOs are unsafe to eat and several reputable agencies have endorsed the safety of food containing GMOs. A state-commissioned report found “no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse health consequences” with regard to genetically modified foods. However, critics of GMOs question how the data from this report was gathered and demand more extensive research on the matter.
While public opinion on genetically modified foods is still divided, campaign donations seem to be the deciding factor in these votes. In California, a proposal to label food for GMOs failed by only 51% to 49% earlier this year, and in Washington, the labeling initiative was defeated by 52% to 48% in November. Whereas supporters in California received $9.2 million in campaign donations, opponents got $46 million. Similarly, proponents in Washington raised about $7 million, while the opposition brought in $22 million. Furthermore, even in Maine and Connecticut, certain provisions still keep the law from going into effect. (In addition, food safety advocates expect a national standard set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in addition to state regulations.)
Another concern is the potential increase in production costs associated with labeling laws. Farmers fear that it’s going to be too difficult to keep GMO and non-GMO crops separate during the harvesting process. Opponents of mandatory labeling argue that this extra effort would increase the price of food by an average of $450 a year for a family of four. However, an independent study by the Washington State Academy of Sciences found that it’s impossible to accurately calculate the cost of labeling at this point. Given the prevalence of GMO ingredients in food in the U.S., some manufacturers might forgo the effort to keep things segregated, and simply put a GMO label on everything. There is actually a good chance that consumers won’t be put off by the label. If people are given choice over risk, they tend to be less afraid of it and willingly take on that risk, as with the tobacco warning messages on cigarette packages.
GMO-labeling advocates remain hopeful, despite recent defeats at the ballot box: “The big food and big industrial agriculture lobby has a lot of sway and a lot of pull with state representatives, so that creates its own challenges,” George Kimbrell, senior attorney in the Portland office of the Center for Food Safety, stated. “This is not going away,” he said. “We are going to have genetically engineered food be labeled. It’s not a question of if it will, it’s just when it will.”
Click image to see full-size infographic “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Snapshot of the GMO Debate.”