Information is power – especially when it comes to knowing what we’re putting in our bodies. Yet food industry giants appear hell-bent on keeping that knowledge out of reach. And the government agencies responsible for regulating the industry remain unable to enforce the kinds of protections we need.
Calls for the labeling of genetically modified organisms in food products have been steadily gaining traction in recent years. Now several grassroots campaigns have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to create labeling laws. The Just Label It group submitted a petition to the FDA with more than one million signatures.
The only government responses so far have been negative or non-committal. The central problem is the FDA’s position that GMOs are not “materially different” from other organisms, and no scientific evidence has proved them to be a danger to human health. Therefore, the labeling of GMOs is considered an issue of “consumer curiosity,” for which the FDA does not currently have the authority to mandate labeling. Not such a difficult fix: Congress can give the FDA the authority by amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Another issue industry representatives love to bring up – and probably the real reason at the root of government inaction – is the cost associated with labeling. The requirement to label any final products containing GMO ingredients would complicate entire supply chains. In this day and age when so much of our food is highly processed, with a cocktail of chemicals and novel-length ingredient lists, separating GMO and non-GMO items would be no easy task for food corporations.
But this issue isn’t such an insurmountable hurdle as they would have you believe. Many other countries have adopted strict regulation of GMOs and require labeling. The European Union member nations have probably been the strictest. In 2003 the EU adopted new regulations and mandated labeling after lifting a complete seven-year ban on GMO products. Japan, China, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and countless other countries also require labeling.
Granted, GMOs may be much less common in other nations – a recent Grocery Manufacturers Association study found that 80 percent of packaged foods in the U.S. contain genetically engineered components. That only makes the need for labeling even more urgent. I don’t want to debate the science or spread more sensationalized “Frankenfood” rhetoric. Personally I believe it’s too soon to say whether genetically engineered foods represent any human health risks, but my main issue is not on an individual health level.
What I really fear is the effect GMOs may have on a larger scale. This kind of danger is much harder to predict and prevent. And unfortunately, we have a pretty poor track record of seeing the danger coming. Genetically engineered agriculture could be another environmental disaster in the making, the next Deepwater Horizon. The real reasons consumers should be wary of GMOs are not the ones you typically hear about. They are much more complex and subtle, yet ultimately more frightening.
First of all, extensive genetic contamination of wild plant varieties has been proven as a result of GMO crops. Last year, researchers found abundant populations of transgenic canola growing wild in North Dakota. Because it is irreversible and impossible to control, gene flow into wild populations may lead to serious unintended ecological consequences down the road.
Biotech corporations such as Monsanto tout genetic engineering as the best way to feed the world into the future, but in many ways the widespread use of GMOs actually reduces food security. A healthy amount of diversity means some plants will be more resistant to disease, pests or environmental conditions. The reduction in genetic diversity from switching to genetically modified seeds leaves our food crops vulnerable to massive failure, hurting both farmers and the people they feed.
Farmers also get the short end of the stick in terms of profitability. Biotech firms love GMOs because they are able to patent the seeds, giving them much greater control of what goes on at the farm. Farmers are stuck buying expensive seeds year after year because replanting harvested seed is a violation of the firm’s patent on the seed’s genetic code. Monsanto has even sued hundreds of farmers who were the victims of accidental cross-pollination of GM crops.
Another added cost for farmers, and probably the most tangible environmental threat posed by GMO crops, is the massive amounts of chemicals they rely upon for success. Most bio-engineered seeds require huge inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention perfect environmental conditions, to reach the advertised yield potential. All those chemicals are incredibly damaging to not only the surrounding area, but even ecosystems thousands of miles away. Fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi River has created a 7,000-square-mile hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Clearly consumers have a right and a responsibility to know how their food is produced. The stunning lack of information available to consumers is a serious market failure. To those who see mandatory labeling as a market disruption, I would ask: How can a market function properly without consumer information and input to guide producers? Regardless of scientific proof of safety issues, consumer choice ultimately decides what is and is not produced. If food industry giants are afraid putting more knowledge into the hands of consumers will lead to a loss of sales, perhaps they should consider alternatives.
A recent survey by the Mellman Group found 91 percent of those polled would support GMO labeling. Such near-unanimous public opinion is certainly a rarity. Perhaps it would be wise to listen.