Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

What's in a Label?: The Benefits, Consequences, and Shortcomings of GMO Labels

By Anna KambhampatyPublished November 8, 2015

Though the vast majority of Americans say they want GMO labeling to be a nationwide standard, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, a measure that would block states from requiring mandatory GMO labeling, is making passage from the House and onto the Senate. There is little evidence against the safety of GMOs, yet, at the same time, there is little evidence for it. The FDA neither supports nor opposes the use of GMOs in our food supply. Do consumers have a right to know what they are taking in? Are labels the answer to this problem?
By Anna Kambhampaty, 11/08/15

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been in our food supply for around 20 years.
Scientists use genetic engineering to introduce or enhance certain characteristics of an organism. For example, the genes of certain plants may be altered to produce a greater growth rate or an increase in nutritional value. Genetically altered plants must adhere to the same safety requirements under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act that apply to traditionally bred crops.

The U.S. House of Representatives set a national, voluntary standard in July as they passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, a measure that would block states from requiring mandatory GMO labeling. This House bill, currently being discussed in the Senate, was passed in  response to Vermont's Act 120, a law calling for the labeling of genetically modified foods.  Supporters of this bill blocking mandatory GMO-labeling legislation include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who claim that such mandatory labels impose "burdensome new speech requirements on food manufacturers and retailers," and companies like Monsanto, who believe that GMO labels will spur unnecessary fear around the issue. It is believed that if labels are required out of nowhere, the public may take these labels as warning signs that GMOs should be avoided whenever possible. Also, if GMO-free producers want to let people know that their goods are not genetically engineered, they can simply, voluntarily include a "GMO-free" label themselves; this way, GMO good producers do not necessarily take business away from non-GMO food producers who attract buyers on the basis of being GMO-free.

The bill is strongly opposed by companies such as Ben & Jerry's, a popular GMO-free food producer, and non-profit organizations like The Non-GMO Project. Such interest groups claim that, at the very least, the public should be made aware of any GMOs a product may contain. These groups oppose the use of GMOs in our food supply, in general, on the basis that we do not know the long term effects of these ingredients and that GMOs are leading us toward an increasingly consolidated and industrial food system while taking away from small, sustainable farming.

A poll taken by ABC News revealed that 93% of Americans feel the federal government should require GMO labeling. The passing of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is an act of blatant ignorance toward public opinion and caters to interest groups who support GMOs. Nearly everything- from ingredients to calories, the healthy to the unhealthy, the living to the dead- can be found labeled on a food item. Why, then, should GMOs not be included on an item's label? Manufacturers are required to include ingredients, fat contents, major allergens etc. found in their foods. These elements may not necessarily be harmful, but the label is still required. As consumers, we have a right to know what we are taking in, good or bad.

A label, simply stating whether or not a good contains GMOs, does not vilify GMOs any more than an ingredients label on a granola bar vilifies granola. If GMOs are not unsafe, then labeling them should not cause a decrease in sales. If a decrease in sales of products containing GMOs did occur, it would be the result of consumers deciding not to consume GMOs for reasons including moral values, economic beliefs, personal preference, etc. When a consumer who understands the implications of GMOs sees the label, they should view it as a notice or a token of information, not necessarily a grave sign of danger (unless, of course, there came out research proving this). This is where the issue becomes one of public awareness rather than one of consumer rights.
Right now, fairly little is known regarding the safety of GMOs, and even less is common public knowledge. If companies are truly convinced that GMOs cause no harm, they should invest in researching this claim and informing the public, not support legislation that reverses the progress we make toward open information and transparency. Supplementally, the U.S. government should invest in public awareness campaigns for GMOs while conducting further, extensive research to find out the exact long-term effects of GMOs. We are saying there's no proof that these ingredients cause any direct harm, but there is a possibility that they do. Why are we letting this question be and not looking for a definitive answer? This is an issue of public health, not something we should be accepting and making use of without fully understanding the implications. The safety of GMOs should no longer be a matter of opinion or an issue of debate among different interest groups.

We should require labels on GMO products for the same reason we require any other type of label- to increase and promote informed decision-making. The U.S. Government has supported and advocated for consumer rights in the past- why stop now? In this case, informed decision-making comes at the price of appeasing big business. Apparently, that's not a trade-off we're willing to make. Facts should not be hidden, consumers should understand what they are buying, and GMOs, good or bad, should be labeled and researched.