Labeling GMOs

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This November, California could become the first state to label foods containing genetically modified organisms. That’s when the vote will be held on a measure that would require labels for agricultural products produced with GMOs and for all processed foods with more than 0.5 percent GM content.

That wouldn’t include beef because the “California Right to Know Genetically Modified Food” measure does not apply to foods “made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves.” (Currently, we don’t have any genetically engineered animals in the food chain, at least until USDA makes a decision on the AquaBounty salmon.) Critics object to that exemption, as well as to the measure’s exception made for food sold in restaurants.

But the measure would include many other foods because for more than 10 years most of our processed foods have contained ingredients from genetically modified plants. In this country, almost all the corn and soybeans are genetically modified, in most cases so the crops are resistant to herbicides or insects. Under the California measure, everything from cereal to salad dressing to chocolate chip cookies would be labeled.

Last fall, more than a million signatures were gathered for an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration to mandate labels nationally. Meanwhile, in the absence of any movement from FDA, more than 10 states have proposed their own labeling bills. None have passed; efforts to pass such legislation in Connecticut and Vermont have most recently failed to come to a vote.

In California, advocates collected far more than the required half-a-million signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot; those signatures were certified in June by California’s secretary of state. Many observers agree that, if passed, the measure could quickly lead to de facto national labeling for GMOs. Companies selling food nationally or even across state lines will not be eager to create different labeling protocols for products; it will be easier to just label everything.

But until now, most American consumers really haven’t shown a great deal of interest in GMOs, at least compared with the rest of the world. Biotech labeling has already been adopted in 40 countries, including many European countries, Japan, Australia and China. In England, demonstrators threaten to destroy GM crops being grown in research trials. Still, when asked if they wanted genetically engineered foods to be labeled, about 90 percent of Americans answered that they did, according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll. (That percentage was roughly consistent across Democrats, Republicans and independents.)

What would consumers do with the GMO-labeled products? Hard to say, but common sense suggests they want that information for a reason, and perhaps that reason is to reject those GMOs and the products containing them. That’s the concern of biotech companies and the farmers who grow those crops: that the labels will generate unwarranted fears about GMOs and cause more people to refuse them.

Buying certified organic products is one way consumers can avoid GMOs right now, in the absence of labels; those products cannot contain GMOs. And perhaps the consumers concerned about genetic modification are already doing that and will continue to do so. Another possibility is that the labels would create an opportunity for a third marketing option for growers and manufacturers: non-GMO but still conventional (nonorganic) crops and foods. But it’s all speculation until Californians have their say.


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