|August 11, 2014|
GMO or no? Should labels be required on food with genetically modified ingredients?
|Did that cereal you just spooned into your mouth contain corn that was tweaked in a lab to have bug-killing bacteria? Or was it made with soybeans that have had their DNA changed so the plant can be doused with pesticide? |
In most cases, it's impossible to tell.
That right to know whether the food you eat contains GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- is at the center of a multi-million dollar national fight between the food industry and consumer rights advocates.
Grocery trade groups and farmers who grow the crops say labels will only scare people needlessly and raise the price of food. Consumer advocates say everyone has the right to know whether they are eating something whose DNA was changed in a lab.
The scientific tweaks at the center of the debate are called genetic modifications. More than 400 million acres of genetically modified crops are grown in the world. The vast majority of corn, soy and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, or "GMO." Sugar, too, often comes from GMO beet plants.
The fight over the right to know whether food is GMO came to New York this year and experts on both sides says it's here to stay.
The food industry successfully fought off a GMO-labeling effort in New York earlier this year, dropping $3.7 million lobbying against a label that would tell consumers whether their food contained GMO-ingredients. The bill was introduced in the state Assembly and Senate, but died before it got to a vote either place.
The proposed law was one of 70 introduced in 30 states over the past two years calling for the labeling of GMO foods, according to Colin O'Neil, of the Center for Food Safety, which supports mandatory labeling.
Vermont has become the state to watch. It's the first state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling law that didn't require neighboring states to enact similar legislation.
A court will decide the law's fate. In June, trade groups representing grocers and food manufacturers filed a federal lawsuit claiming it was unconstitutional.
The state of Vermont is fundraising to fight back. Ben & Jerry's renamed its' fudge brownie flavor "Food Fight! Fudge Brownie" and $1 of each sale in Vermont is going to pay for the law's defense.
Wegmans, too, has spoken up about labeling. The grocery chain wants better federal guidelines for voluntary labeling.
Are we what we eat?
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has to approve genetic modifications to food and seeds, but there is no requirement to label GMO products. Many of the modifications are tweaks to seeds that enable crops to withstand common pests. But some of the products that are currently in the pipeline sound like they are out of SciFi film: Salmon that grows twice as fast, apples that don't turn brown for 21 days after being sliced.
Right now, there are two options for people who are concerned about eating genetically modified foods. Food that has been certified organic cannot be genetically modified in any way. There is also a non-GMO label available through certification from a nonprofit called The Non-GMO Project. Roughly 20,000 products have gone through that certification process since 2007, according to the organization.
Consumers seek those labels out because they are concerned GMO-food might bear some hidden health risks, said O'Neil.
Dr. Walter C. Willett, a medical doctor who heads up the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that likely isn't the case. Most of the modifications approved for use in the U.S., like crops that can withstand the pesticide Roundup, are unlikely to hurt people, Willet said.
But Willett still supports labeling GMO foods. "I favor labeling GMO foods as a matter of transparency, and if there is really nothing wrong with these foods, manufacturers should support this," Willett said.
Consumers are powering both sides of the debate. No one wants their apple to turn brown. Cheaper salmon would be great. At the same time, increasing numbers of shoppers are looking for organic food and food that is certified non-GMO, said Jane Andrews, manager of nutrition and product labeling for the Wegmans chain.
A 2012 national survey by the Just Label It Campaign, which supports mandatory labeling, found that 91 percent of the public supported mandatory labeling of GMO foods using a national standard.
Wegmans doesn't support this. But the chain recently came out in favor of a national standard for voluntary labeling of non-GMO foods.
"Concerned consumers are interested in finding the products that do not contain GMO ingredients," Andrews said.
Wegmans, which has stores in six states, opposed New York's law.
"If each state comes up with their own definition, it would be even more confusing for food companies as well as consumers," she said. Andrews pointed out that New York's proposal doesn't include dairy products where cows were given growth hormones or meat that had been fed GMO grains.
The ripples of a labeling law are unclear. A study by Cornell University professor William Lesser found that New York's proposed law would raise a family's grocery costs by an average of $500 a year and cost manufacturers and grocers millions. (Critics point out that his research was funded by the Council for Biotechnology Information, an industry organization for the companies that develop GMO technologies).
Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said mandatory labeling could force farmers to stop growing GMO crops. "That can drive agriculture back decades where farmers used more toxic pesticides and were at even greater mercy of Mother Nature," Ammerman said.
Ammerman said the Farm Bureau supports the current voluntary non-GMO labeling system that exists.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents 300 food retailers and manufacturers and is the major force behind the Vermont lawsuit, has cited public opinion in its arguments against mandatory labeling. It touted a recent survey by the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a group that opposes mandatory labeling, that found 63 percent of the people polled favored the FDA's position, which requires no labeling and allows voluntary labeling based on no specific FDA standards.
"GM crops are safe and have important benefits for people and our planet. They use less water and fewer pesticides, reduce crop prices by 15-30 percent and can help us feed a growing global population of seven billion people," the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement about the Vermont lawsuit.
The trade group supports federal legislation that would require a label on GMO foods only if the FDA finds there is a health risk.
But O'Neil, of the Center for Food Safety, which supports mandatory federal labeling of GMO foods, said the current situation offers most consumers nothing but confusion. And it is creating a divide along class lines. People who want the assurance of knowing that their food has no GMO products in it can choose organic or non-GMO labeled products, which often cost more. And it's not a choice poorer families can afford to make, if they are concerned about GMO.
"We don't think it should matter where you shop or what foods you buy," O'Neil said. If there was a uniform federal standard, everyone would know what they were getting. "No matter where you shop - Piggly Wiggly, 7-Eleven, or Whole Foods, you can know."