The FDA, USDA and EPA each have a role when it comes to genetically modified crops. But are GMOs safe,and should they warrant additional food labels? Lindsay and Andy give their perspectives on GMO food labeling.
I want food labels to tell me something important to the nutrition about food: calories, fat content, vitamins – these nutrition facts are important to me and help me make decisions about food. Telling me that food contains a GMO doesn’t help me make decisions; see my pistachio example below (I love Pistachios BTW!).
Science indicates that GMOs are safe including the GMO ingredients used in our food. We rely on the FDA (http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/Biotechnology/ucm346030.htm) and the National Academy of Sciences to affirm these safety claims. In some cases, we know more about GMOs than we do about conventionally bred crops. I am confident in the safety of GMO, but there is never-ending confusion and misinformation on the web.
To remove confusion and provide transparent information I support a nationwide labeling solution. There are more than two-dozen states that have considered additional food label requirements and Vermont became the first to pass GMO labeling laws. Each state creating their own labeling law is a messy approach. State-mandated food labels create a challenge that extends beyond just making a new and separate label for each state. Food manufacturers would need to create different inventories and/or different shipping lines so that manufacturers are in compliance for each state. Could it be done? Sure, but it is important to ask about the benefit to you and I as well as to ask about the cost involved in meeting various state-mandated label laws. The food labeling battle is not about nutrition but about how food is grown. So if there is a mandatory warning label for GMOs it should be about the health, safety or nutrition of food.
That’s why I support FDA’s ability to require labeling of genetically modified food ingredients if there is a health, safety or nutrition issue with foods made by biotechnology. If there is not a health, safety or nutrition issue with foods made by biotech, I support the FDA to establish standards for companies that want to voluntarily label their product as GMO or non-GMO.
Bill HR 4432 ‘The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014’ has been introduced by Pompeo-R and Butterfield-D (http://pompeo.house.gov/uploadedfiles/safeandaccuratefoodlabellingactof2014.pdf). This bill would require biotech companies to go through a mandatory review process with FDA, before commercialization of a new GMO plant. This bill also creates a voluntary label guideline for the presence or absence of GMOs. Finally, this bill would require the FDA to define ‘natural’ on food products. Ultimately, this bill creates a nationwide, voluntary labeling system and standard for GMOs that will reduce confusion about food ingredients.
This is a common sense approach to food labeling, and this approach is validated in the 2014 Food Technology Survey (http://www.foodinsight.org/2014-foodtechsurvey). According to the survey, the majority of Americans (63 percent) support the current FDA policy for labeling of foods produced through biotechnology. The FDA’s role in regulating safety of GE foods is available here http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm352067.htm.
Last, I encourage you to head over to Biofortified and take a look at the post ‘What does a non-GMO label get you?’, written by Anastasia Bodnar. This is a great post with noteworthy discussion in the comments section. http://www.biofortified.org/2014/02/non-gmo-label/
I’ve been thinking much about Plato’s ideas on the cave—where reality is skewed for prisoners in a cave because they live a life in darkness, completely sheltered from the truth. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe there’s an analogy to be found here between the prisoners of Plato’s allegorical cave and the players in the food wars—consumers, producers, suppliers.
It’s hard to know the truth. Are GMOs bad for us? Two decades of science tells us to relax, to praise technology for saving the world from starvation, to eat up and be merry. GMOs are safe. (Read more on my thoughts on that here.)
But can we trust the research, or like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, are our realities skewed, our understanding of truth not fully informed? And what about the research arriving on scene that advocates for organics over GMOs?
For the consumer, our ideas of reality are shaped by those within the food industry. The organics industry (Big Organic) understands that its survival depends on informing and educating its consumer on the dangers of conventionally raised food. Conversely, the conventional industry (Big Ag) understands that its survival depends upon toeing the line, making it crystal clear that there is absolutely zero nutritional difference between its product and its organic counterpart.
HOW DO WE REACH COMMON GROUND?
While Andy proposes that the FDA requires labeling where there is a nutritional or health difference, the truth is that the majority of scientific evidence relied upon by the FDA shows NO nutritional or health difference between conventionally raised and organic food. The FDA knows this. The ag industry knows this; that’s why Andy’s stance is such a safe place for those in the biotech world to be.
But proponents of food labeling for GMOs aren’t typically choosing organic (and I use that term loosely as “organic” is a word that needs some major unpacking) because of a massive difference in nutrient levels. Rather, consumers who are leery of eating GMO food aren’t comfortable with the amounts of synthetic residual and systemic pesticides found within GMO foods. They are seeking a more sustainable way of raising food, and so they choose to support the idea that buying organic stems the tide of big corporate takeover of the farm table.
But it’s important to note that those people are the same people who care enough about their food to educate themselves about the origins of their food. They are the ones who understand that a food label is packed with information intended to inform concerned consumers about the quality of ingredients, the nutritional value, and even the form of production and processing. A quick walk down the grocery store aisles will reveal that corporations have become enlightened to the needs of these consumers: They know that words like “organic” and “natural” sell. They have learned that a segment of consumers are willing to pay a premium price for products that can tout “locally raised” and “non-GMO.” By default, then, it seems that food labeling of GMOs is already happening. By marketing genius, by the rule of the capitalistic dollar, those who can market non-GMO products are already doing so, and those who are interested in buying non-GMO products are already savvy enough to identify the labels. So, to ask it bluntly: Isn’t food labeling ALREADY happening?
If the purpose of a food label is to inform the consumer, then I have to wonder: If a consumer buys a bag of artificially colored cheese puffs or a loaf of bread with 50 ingredients listed on the food label, will a GMO label be the clincher for her? My hunch is that it will not, that her convictions won’t compel her to pay a higher dollar amount for non-GMO food, mostly, perhaps, because she hasn’t been convinced that GMOs could be harmful to her health.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Something that cannot be done—as long as the almighty dollar rules the world. We need to cut the jargon. We need to be honest with consumers about the science, about the possible science, and about the origins of food long before it ever hits our grocery shelves. There’s so much more to the food story than a price tag and a label, and there are consumers out there who are willing to invest their dollars in food that seeks to protect worker rights and communities, but I’m not sure that we’ll ever find that type of food in our grocery aisles, for that’s the food found in our neighbor’s back yard, our farmer’s markets, our co-ops—the type of food where a true label is found in a handshake stained with soil-covered fingernails.
A food label is truly a map for the consumer, but not every consumer wants a map of the entire world—some are just looking for the basics. So let’s keep the choice on the table. Let’s allow voluntary labeling, empowering the consumer to make a choice, to seek out those products that foster transparency, that go the extra mile to meet consumer need. It’s the law of capitalism, making something available and letting it prosper on its own merit. And in the meantime, let’s empower the consumer with information and education—getting them out of the cave before it’s too late.