These days, most foods Americans eat contain at least some elements that have been genetically modified. Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are created in laboratories using biotechnology or genetic engineering.
Despite years of controversy over whether and how foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled, FDA guidelines released this week maintain the legal status quo, under which food companies are not required to disclose GMO ingredients. Even as they change nothing, however, the new guidelines provide an interesting look into ongoing legal and policy debates about GMOs. With growing scientific consensus that GMO foods are not materially different from their non-GMO counterparts, the FDA is right to not give in to pressure to require labeling in all instances.
There exists a surprising gulf between scientific consensus and public opinion regarding GMOs. According to some polls, 92 percent of American consumers believe that the government should require GMO foods to be labeled. During 2013, demand for foods with the non-profit organization Non-GMO Project’s seal of verification rose 80 percent. As a result, food companies are incentivized to shun GMOs because non-GMO foods fetch higher prices at specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods. Companies that sell products that are coincidentally GMO-free can add the Non-GMO Project label as a marketing trick, the same way cereal companies print “cholesterol free” on their boxes. And, recognizing consumer trends, major food makers including General Mills and Hershey are purchasing smaller, more “natural” brands that bear the non-GMO label.
While we’re clearly seeing a shift in consumer and, consequently, corporate habits, this shift seems to be driven by something other than scientifically proven differences between GMO and non-GMO foods.
GMOs are made when scientists take a plant and modify its DNA using viruses, other DNA, or bacteria. In this way, scientists can make foods that are more resilient, last longer, can grow more places and during different seasons, need less water and nutrients to grow, etc. Scientists have created apples that don’t go brown, potatoes that don’t bruise, and carrots that are bigger and more orange than before.
Proponents of GMOs argue that they are a positive development because they allow us to produce more food using fewer resources, thus driving down the cost consumers must pay for groceries. The potential benefits of GMOs are varied and significant: according to one study, GMOs have contributed to a 40 percent decline in the amount of insecticide sprayed worldwide.
On the other hand, opponents point out that, were GMOs dangerous, we wouldn’t know yet. GMOs in their current form have existed since 1994 and, despite hundreds of studies concluding they are safe, 22 years is not enough time to know for sure that GMOs aren’t harmful. In theory, negative health effects could begin to manifest anytime, and opponents fear that GMOs will cause cancer and other health problems.
Perhaps to take precautions against this possibility – or perhaps to maintain a “clean green image,” as the Scottish secretary for rural affairs, food and environment suggested – the European Union has passed a law requiring foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such. China and Australia have similar laws.
While such a law would be consistent with American public opinion, scientists have argued that it would stifle innovation and development of GMO foods that can benefit society. According to one researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science, “[t]he worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is as solid as that which underpins human-caused global warming.”
This being the case, the FDA’s guidelines ring sensible in the face of pressure from both sides of the political debate about GMOs. Consumers do indeed have a right to know what’s in their food, but this goal can be accomplished by companies’ use of non–GMO labels. Labeling GMO foods would create unwarranted stigma for many products, including most of what less-than-affluent Americans can afford. Consumers who care and can afford to purchase non-GMO products continue to have that option.