5 Points Against GMO Labeling

March 21, 2014 09:12 PM

There is significant debate about whether food containing genetic­ally modified organ­ism (GMO)John Dillard 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. 
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Spell Check

3/22/2014 08:30 PM

  Nice try. Many ingredients such as salt, protein and calcium are considered to be safe and even beneficial. They are clearly labeled so that consumers have the information they need and want to help them make decisions about the products they purchase.

3/23/2014 05:21 PM

  The writer lists five arguments against labeling, but each of these arguments follows from his initial premise: that GMOs are safe. This premise is false. Today there are plenty of published studies that demonstrate that GMOs are harmful. Many of these studies are conveniently referenced in the book "Genetic Roulette" by Jeffrey Smith. Many molecular geneticists have spoken out about the multitude of serious risks associated with using genetic engineering for agriculture, but their warnings have gone unheeded by the FDA and the AMA. Inserting a transgene into the DNA of a plant is not a clean or precise technique by any stretch of the imagination. For practical purposes it is probably impossible to test for all the conditions that could go wrong with this technology when it is applied to our food supply. Genetic engineering is appropriate for producing pharmaceuticals, where a specific protein is purified in the end, but it is inappropriate for agriculture, where the genetically modified organism itself is ingested. Mandatory GMO labeling is supported by at least 90% of the American public, and GMO labeling is already mandatory in 64 countries. It is unethical to secretly introduce GM products into our diets by refusing to label.

3/24/2014 01:00 AM

  @Etiquete Are you considering that there are reputable sources that claim GMOs are unsafe, because I can assure you there isn't one. Not only does the scientific community back up that GMOs have proven safe in 20 years Americans have been eating them. It is very unprofessional to make claims such as "Many molecular geneticists have spoken out about...". The process is very precise and understood very well, so to say that it isn't is very disheartening. The tricky part of Genetic Engineering isn't the engineering, but understanding what can come from events such as recombination and alternative splicing, which we clearly know enough about to safely and soundly produce GMOs safe for consumption. Labeling is not supported by 90% or more of the public and has failed in many state ballots. @Jackalope Salt, protein and calcium do not have mandatory labeling laws, nor should they. Furthermore, salt and protein are VERY broad terms, so I'm sure if people really wanted to know what is really in their food they would also request labels that could specifically describe these in detail and maybe how the preservatives found in 80% of packaged food are synthesized. Whether or not you trust the FDA, I would say GMOs relation to public safety is the least of our concerns.