There is significant debate about whether food containing genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients should be labeled. The conflict pits farmers, food processors and seed suppliers against a collection of grassroots consumer organizations, anti-corporatists and organic food interests.
GMO labeling proponents have not succeeded at changing the status quo, so they are turning to state measures. After expensive educational campaigns on both sides, ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling in California (2012) and Washington (2013) narrowly failed. Maine and Connecticut technically have GMO labeling laws, but their laws only become effective if a critical mass of neighboring states also jump on board. At press time, several state GMO labeling bills were being considered across the country.
Proponents of GMO labeling say it is about transparency and consumers’ "right to know." At first, these reasons appear persuasive. However, there are many arguments against mandatory GMO labeling. When consumers and voters see both sides of the issue, "just label it" is much less compelling.
1. GMOs are safe. Despite inferences or accusations by labeling proponents implying that GMO foods are unsafe, there is no scientific proof that foods containing GMO ingredients are less healthy than their conventional counterparts.
This is the position of the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, and it is backed by hundreds of independently funded research studies. GMO traits undergo an extensive testing process. If a health risk, such as an allergen, is identified, which has happened, these products do not go to market.
2. Labels stigmatize GMOs. Consider the products we label. Cigarettes, alcohol and pharmaceuticals are labeled to disclose potential health hazards. Nutrition labels inform customers about the ingredients in their food, as well as its nutritional content. To the average consumer, a GMO label says the product is less safe than a non-GMO product. Make no mistake about it—the goal of GMO labeling proponents is to stigmatize the use of GMOs.
For instance, when Whole Foods said it would require GMO labeling in its stores by 2018, its suppliers did not simply decide to start labeling products before the deadline. Instead, they are scrambling to find new non-GMO ingredients and formulations.
Many countries in the developed world require GMO labeling, but it is hard to find GMO products on grocery shelves in these countries. It’s very telling that the primary sources of funding behind the "Just Label It!" campaign, which supports state labeling initiatives, are organic food manufacturers that are in the best position to profit by the GMO stigmatization.
3. GMOs have a multitude of benefits. Although GMO crops are not a cure-all, it is undeniable that GMO crops are a great tool for pest management. Roundup Ready technology has reduced the use of risky herbicides and increased the adoption of no-till and conservation tillage—reducing soil erosion and improving greenhouse gas retention.
In addition, GMOs hold substantial promise for improving yields, drought resistance and consumer-centric traits, such as high-oleic soybeans or apples that resist browning.
4. Mandatory labeling is likely unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects against arbitrary mandatory labeling. Labels are limited to health or safety notices. Since FDA recognizes GMOs do not pose a health or safety hazard, it would be hard to show that labels improve consumer health.
Also, the Constitution’s Commerce Clause prevents states from passing laws that burden interstate commerce without a legitimate justification, such as health or safety regulation. State laws that require GMO labeling will burden out-of-state food manufacturers that would have to segregate and separately label products. With no legitimate health justification, a federal court would likely invalidate a state labeling law.
5. It should be a federal issue. This debate will continue until the federal government develops a national standard that preempts state labeling laws. Our food industry cannot efficiently function with a patchwork of state labeling laws. FDA should enact a policy against requiring mandatory GMO labeling and provide clear standards for the voluntary labeling of both GMO and non-GMO foods.
This column is not a substitute for legal advice.