Ask Us Anything About GMOs!

Q:
I want foods with transgenic ingredients to be labeled as such. I may still decide to purchase them for convenience or economic reasons, but I need to have that choice. I am an educated, responsible consumer, and am unhappy that information is being concealed from me by the companies who claim to be looking out for my best interest. Private industries do not the right to affect me then hide it from me. My question, then, is: Why should GMOs not be labeled? What is the most convincing reason for this lapse of information, that still respects freedom of consumer choice and access to information?
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A:Expert Answer

Experts have provided multiple perspectives on the labeling debate in responses to other questions on GMO Answers; below are excerpts to a few that might interest you.

 

In these two answers, linked and excerpted below, Neal Van Alfen, professor at UC Davis, and David B. Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, discuss GMO labeling with regard to the importance of maintaining a reliable and consistent regulatory system.

 

Neal Van Alfen, Professor at UC Davis (click here to view original response):

 

"This seems to be a fair and reasonable request—to know how our food was created.  Food is already labeled with its ingredients when it has been processed, and warnings are sometimes included on labels.  So why not let the consumer know if any of the components of the food were GMOs? The reason food is not labeled as containing GMOs is that mandatory food labeling is used only to provide information that may be important for consumers to make food choices regarding ingredients known to affect their health.  After many studies and years of experience with consumption of GMOs there is no credible evidence that there is a health risk associated with eating GMOs.

  

"Is it then fair and reasonable to require mandatory labeling to warn consumers that food contains GMOs, when this labeling system is used only when health risk choices must be made by consumers?  We should not compromise the integrity or credibility of our food labeling system by requiring a warning, when there is no credible scientific evidence of adverse health effects associated with the consumption of GMOs.

 

"Foods can be and are labeled to help consumers make choices, but such labeling is voluntary. Common examples are kosher and halal labels, which help consumers select or avoid foods based on their belief systems."

 

David B. Schmidt, President and CEO of the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation (click here to view original response):

 

"While I can’t speak for the biotech industry, there is an important principle at stake in many of these ballot measures.  Activists and elements of the organic and natural-food industries are spending millions of dollars to stigmatize conventional and biotech foods in order to promote their niche products, which are generally sold to consumers at a higher price.  In essence, they are creating fear with unproven, outlandish allegations in order to get unsuspecting consumers to avoid affordable, safe and wholesome foods, in hopes that they can sell you their niche product at a higher price and profit for them. If regulators allowed this to happen with biotechnology, there could be no end to the types of safe food and agriculture technologies that could be unfairly banned or stigmatized by false accusations and innuendo, rather than scientific consensus.  The success of American commerce, admired around the world, is a level playing field based on facts and fairness, and our regulators help ensure that remains constant."

 

The following two answers, provided by Carol Keiser, president of C-BAR Cattle Company, Inc., and Cathleen Enright, executive director of the Center for Biotechnology Information, address how mandatory GMO labeling might lead to heightened misperception and confusion among consumers about the food they purchase.

 

Carol Keiser, President of C-BAR Cattle Company, Inc. (click here to view original response):

 

"The purpose of a food label is to help consumers make smart decisions about what to buy and eat. But what if these labels confused people instead of informed them? Or, worse yet, what if labels actually misled consumers?

 

"The dangers of deceptive labeling aren’t a speculative assertion but rather the main point of a paper by Juanjuan Zhang, a marketing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'Mandatory disclosure of GMOs in food products lowers consumers' perceived GMO safety,' she writes in 'Policy and Inference: The Case of Product Labeling.' Zhang’s research reveals that the mere act of labeling food that contains GMOs is deceptive. It causes consumers to suspect that GMOs are dangerous, even though the safety of biotech food is beyond reasonable doubt, as organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have determined.

 

"Supporters of the 'just label it' movement like to talk about 'the right to know.' Yet Zhang’s scholarship shows that consumer behavior is more complicated than a political slogan. Labels possess the power to mislead. That means our lawmakers must mandate them sparingly, and not just because a few special-interest groups want the federal government to help them obtain a competitive advantage in the food market."

 

Cathleen Enright, Executive Director of the Center for Biotechnology Information (click here to view original response):

 

"We oppose mandatory labeling of GM food because we believe such a label would convey to consumers that food made from farmers' crops grown with our seeds is less safe or nutritious than or different from conventional or organic food.  A 2013 study conducted by an MIT professor indicated that this indeed would be the case (see 'Policy and Inference: The Case of Product Labeling').

 

"We support consumers' right to know about the food that they are choosing, but in the absence of any food-safety concern, and as believers in GM technology who have seen its benefits accrue to farmers and communities around the world (check out 'GMOs and the Future of Agriculture'), we believe claims regarding the presence or absence of GM ingredients are best left to voluntary, market-based labels that traditionally are used by competitors to promote one type of product over another.

 

"With regard to safety, we are not asking for you to take our word for it, but we ask you to consider the hundreds of independent studies demonstrating that GM food does not raise any new concerns about the food we eat (check out independent studies at Biofortified). In addition, scientific and regulatory authorities around the world have determined that GM foods on the market are as safe and nutritious as their non-GM counterparts [see FDA information here]."

 

Ted Sheely, board member of Truth About Trade & Technology, discusses California’s Prop 37 labeling initiative in this response; an excerpt is included below:

 

"There's no nutritional difference between food with GM ingredients and food without, so labels can't convey useful consumer information. In fact, labels will send the opposite message, hinting that a problem exists when this simply isn’t true.

 

"GM foods are safe to eat. That's the conclusion of every scientific and regulatory agency that has studied the question, from the American Medical Association to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the World Health Organization.

 

"A few days after Whole Foods announced its new policy, the editorial page of the New York Times—­one of the most liberal newspapers in the country—­voiced its skepticism. “There is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers,” it said. “For now, there seems little reason to make labeling compulsory.” The Times went on to make a common-sense suggestion: Consumers who are determined to avoid GM foods already may do so. They can select organic food, whose federally certified labels already mark products that don't contain GM ingredients.

 

"Even people who do this, however, should not operate under the illusion that organic food is healthier than conventional and more affordable varieties.

 

"In October 2012, a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics said that organic food and nonorganic food are nutritionally equivalent. The key is to eat a balanced diet.

 

"A month earlier, Stanford researchers published their own report that showed much the same thing. “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler of Stanford’s medical school. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”

 

"Perhaps Whole Foods should require labels that say 'May Contain GM Ingredients, Not That It Matters,” or, “Don't Pay High Prices for Organic Food Because It Isn’t Any Better For You.”

 

"Then again, that would undercut Whole Foods’ very reason for being.

 

"In a grand irony, Whole Foods criticized food labeling last fall, when Californians voted on Proposition 37, which would have mandated special labels for foods with GM ingredients. Initially, Whole Foods backed Prop 37, but the chain also publicized its 'reservations,' due to 'consumer confusion' and 'costly litigation,' and ultimately ended its support of the ballot initiative."

 

In this answer, John Rigolizzo, a fifth-generation farmer and board member of Truth About Trade & Technology, discusses how the mandatory labeling of GMOs would raise the cost of food for families and undermine farmers' efforts to feed a growing population:

 

"Labels won’t help consumers make better decisions, but they’ll increase the cost of food because the labels aren’t free. They represent a significant new regulation for farmers and food companies. The added expense of compliance will be passed along to consumers. We’ll all pay more for what we eat at grocery stores and restaurants.

 

"At a time when the U.S. economy is at best sputtering along in New Jersey and elsewhere, we shouldn’t pass pointless laws that make it harder for families to feed themselves.

 

"It would be bad enough if the negative impacts of excessive labeling with information of no use to human health or safety were to stop there. Yet they’ll extract an even higher toll as they call into question the very purpose of GM technology. Consumers may begin to wonder why this food needs labels in the first place―and they may start to avoid it.

 

"That would be a tragedy. Biotechnology lets us grow more food on less land. That's why I grow GM crops on my farm, not far from where Assemblywoman DeCroce cast her wrongheaded vote in favor of an unnecessary labeling law.

 

"As we struggle to feed our families in tough times―and try to find ways to feed a growing global population―we need to appreciate food grown with the benefit of biotechnology as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem."

 

Lastly, in this response, excerpted below, Andy Hedgecock, director of scientific affairs at DuPont Pioneer talks about why an open discussion about GMOs will accomplish more than any label on a product can:

 

At the end of the day, we believe all labels should be helpful and not misleading for consumers. What I find in the discussions I have is that "helpful" means different things to different people. When it comes to biotechnology, some would find it helpful to know about GM safety, and others are interested in the potential impacts to the environment (including beneficial), perceived corporate control of agriculture or how we make biotech crops and why. In the end, a label will not help answer these questions. But we can. That is why the biotech companies have joined together to create this forum where consumers can ask their questions directly of us―independent scientists, health professionals, farmers and more.

 

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