Is it important to know when our food contains genetically modified organisms? According to the Center for Food Safety, genetically modified ingredients are contained within an estimated 75% of processed food products in the U.S., which could include anything from cans of soup to packages of wheat bread.
And yet consumer paranoia surrounding GMOs has led restaurants like Chipotle and certain companies to swear off the use of the foods in their products, and most consumers view non-GMO food products as more healthful than their counterparts. So should it be required that of food producers to disclose if their products contain GMOs? Let's take a look at the several facets of this issue.
In July 2016, the United States Senate passed a bill to make food packaging a little clearer, mandating that any food product with GMO ingredients be labeled as such. If the bill does become a law, the information on GMOs can be concealed in a QR code or made available via a phone call, which is not quite as transparent as being printed on a label. Obviously, this suits the interest of big food companies, who would rather not disclose so prominently that they're using GMO ingredients given their bad rap. Thanks to the the Vermont law, however, several national food companies including General Mills, Kellogg's and Campbell Soup Co. will be adding GMO labels to all of their products, as it wouldn't be financially feasible to just make separate labels for consumers purchasing their products in Vermont.
But should GMO ingredients be specially labeled?
Some think: Absolutely not
Dr. Karthik Aghoram, associate professor of biological sciences at Meredith College in North Carolina doesn't believe food packages need GMO specifications. "GMO is not an ingredient," he said in an email. "It is a breeding technology. GE technology does not inherently pose any risk to consumers or the environment that other, less-precise breeding technologies don't pose."
A September 2013 editorial by the editors of Scientific American explained that food modification is necessary and has being going on for quite some time:
We have been tinkering with our food's DNA since the dawn of agriculture. By selectively breeding plants and animals with the most desirable traits, our predecessors transformed organisms' genomes, turning a scraggly grass into plump-kerneled corn, for example. For the past 20 years Americans have been eating plants in which scientists have used modern tools to insert a gene here or tweak a gene there, helping the crops tolerate drought and resist herbicides. Around 70 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients. Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people's health.
In short, a large community of scientists and science specialists believe that GMO labeling can cause more harm than good when used within the larger, unread and unscientific community.
More than 70% of Americans say they don't want GMOs in their food, but because there is no scientific evidence of harm from GMO crops or ingredients created from them, Aghoram said that this labelling can get "extremely confusing" for consumers.
"Mandatory labels should only extend to foods that contain ingredients with scientifically proven evidence of value (vitamins, protein, unsaturated fat) or risk (allergy information, trans-fats, cholesterol, sugar, calories etc.)," Aghoram said. He also noted that this prompts the question of how many ingredients are worth labelling. Organic apples, for instance, naturally contain formaldehyde, which is technically a known carcinogen — but should apples have a label warning consumers of their natural formaldehyde?
Moreover, Aghoram believes that mandatory GMO labeling will be expensive. "It costs a tremendous amount of money to regulate the supply chain — a cost that will be passed on to the consumer to provide meaningless information," he said. "What it will do is to serve as a 'warning label' due to faulty marketing, turn people off from it, and thus jeopardize the future of a highly successful and effective technology for sustainable food production. And that will be a travesty."
But the majority of Americans want GMO transparency
The strongest argument for GMO labeling, as advocated by politicians like Bernie Sanders, is that consumers deserve a right to know what is in their food. Currently, 64 countries from Europe, Asia and South America all have GMO labeling laws, while the U.S. does not.
The organization Just Label It reports that 90% of Americans support labeling GMO food products. More than 400 food companies, including Whole Foods Market to Annie's Homegrown Goods, advocate for greater transparency in labeling GMO foods as part of the "right to know" movement, while major food conglomerates like Hershey's, Pepsi and Nestle are notoriously not part of the fight to legally mandate GMO labels on food products, collectively spending millions on lobbying against mandatory GMO legislation.
In 2016, Nestle rolled out its own GMO label to differentiate its products that are made without GMO ingredients. The company, which still uses GMO ingredients in its products, explains on its website that this new label will give consumers "additional confidence" when purchasing select Nestle products, though all the GMO products that the company does use have been deemed safe.
So is this actually about food safety, or just marketing?
A 2015 poll showed that 90% of Americans want GMO labeling on their foods. For a company like Nestle to include their privatized label to encourage consumer satisfaction with it's GMO-free products makes sense from a business perspective, even if the company does not actively support GMO labeling legislation.
GMOs aren't proven to be harmful, but they're also not proven to be effective
While GMO plants in and of themselves are not yet scientifically proven to have adverse health effects, the use of dangerous chemicals used to raise these plants can be concerning.
A new examination published by the New York Times on Sunday that into the benefits and shortcomings of GMO crops may change how Americans look at GMOs. When the U.S. and Canada jumped into growing GMO crops about 20 years ago, Europe resisted. In the two decades that followed, crop yield in Europe has soared beyond its North American counterparts, an infographic titled the "Broken Promises of GMO Crops, by the Times showed. Herbicide (think weed killer) use has also grown immensely in the U.S., while herbicide, insecticide and pesticide use are all decreasing in Europe.
While GMO plants in and of themselves are not yet scientifically proven to have adverse health effects, the use of dangerous chemicals used to raise these plants can be concerning. "Pesticides are toxic by design — weaponized versions, like sarin, were developed in Nazi Germany — and have been linked to developmental delays and cancer," the Times explained. In addition to being linked to various types of cancer, pesticides have also been found responsible for "nerve, skin, and eye irritation and damage, headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and systemic poisoning," according to the Toxics Action Center.
Shouldn't consumers be warned by labels if their plants were raised with Nazi-created toxins?
The ethics of labeling and GMOs get even murkier when looking into where the GMO seeds and chemicals come from. In the case of Monsanto, the world's largest seed company: It's the same place. "The industry is winning on both ends — because the same companies make and sell both the genetically modified plants and the poisons," the Times wrote.
Plants have been modified to stay fresh longer, taste arguably better and to be unattractive to bugs, potentially leading to reduced pesticide use. While the concept of crops needing fewer pesticides seems well-intentioned, this has led to herbicide-resistant seeds, which, in turn, need more varieties of herbicide to grow and thrive. Cue: those Nazi chemicals all over your the veggies.
While these toxic chemicals have negative side effects? Research is still being conducted on the effects of herbicides and pesticides, as well as the consumption of these GMO foods. Rather than the labeling of our GMO foods, however, the question for the future may be whether or not foods grown with toxic pesticides should be labeled. Does the American public have a right to know what poisons go into creating their meals?