Ask Us Anything About GMOs!

Q:
You mentioned an MIT study shows that labeling GMOs would result in consumers perceiving GMOs as harmful. Isn't a free market determined by consumer preference rather than corporate interest, whatever that consumer preference may be based on, or do we no longer live in a democracy?
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A:Expert Answer

So, I’m going to let my political-science-nerd flag fly. Technically, in the U.S. we live in a republic, not a democracy. A republic is founded on the rule of law―in our case, the U.S. Constitution. A democracy is based on popular consent―some like to label this “mob rule,” which doesn't have a very positive connotation. The citizens of a republic elect representatives and have institutions acting on their behalf, while participants in a democracy act for themselves. And, not to pile on, but given the proliferation of laws and regulations affecting commerce, there's very little that's actually “free” about our marketplace―except that you can choose which products you buy, including foods that are not made with GMOs.

 

All that being said, I’m glad you phrased your question the way you did, because it gives us a unique angle from which to approach the GMO labeling conundrum. In our republic, our industry's stance on food labeling is based on U.S. law, and that law requires labeling for certain things, such as known food allergens (detailed information on allergen labeling is available here), and for foods whose composition or nutritional value is different from that of their conventional counterparts, like high-oleic (healthier-fat) soybeans. The law also allows for voluntary labeling―for companies to make truthful marketing claims on their packaging in order to differentiate their products from others in the marketplace.

Food labeling guidance is determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And although this institution is transcribing the regulations, there is the opportunity for the public to provide input through submitting comments or by participating in public meetings. According to FDA, “Rules are not created arbitrarily or in a vacuum. They are formed with the public's help. By law, anyone can participate in the rule-making process by commenting in writing on rules FDA proposes.” See FDA’s webpage about “making your voice heard."

So, what would a “democratic,” mandatory food label look like? Given that individual subjectivity abounds in any population, it’s difficult to see how a single group could come to an agreement on what should be on every food label. In a November 2013 segment on NPR, "What's The Most Important Thing Food Labels Should Tell Us?," four food experts were asked to describe their ideal food label. Granted, this would be considered a very small “democracy.” Interestingly, though, GMOs weren't on anyone's list. Instead, each of these experts wanted something different on the label. One person wanted information on environmental impact―deforestation and water and fertilizer use. The second wanted to know whether or not the person who made that product received a living wage. Another was interested in a similar concept―whether the farmworker was treated fairly. And, finally, the fourth wanted a points system or symbol to help people gauge the nutritional value of a product. So, even among this small democracy of experts, there was no agreement on what information needed to be on a food label.

 

The fact we live in a republic and abide by its laws doesn’t let us off the hook, though. Should we, as an industry, do a better job of communicating the science, benefits and risks of GMOs? Absolutely. We understand there is a lot of confusion, misperception and fear about GMOs. While we don’t believe that an ambiguous “May Contain GMOs” label will give you the information you need to make an informed decision, we do encourage you to do your own research and to utilize this website―be skeptical, ask questions and use the information you find to make an informed decision, which actually may be to buy non-GM or certified organic foods. But in this marketplace we have, you’re free to make that choice.   

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