What’s in your food? The growing debate over labeling genetically modified foods.

Image by Mark | flickr.com

Image by Mark | flickr.com

Genetically modified (GM) foods raise questions of safety, ethics and overall efficacy compared to conventional foods.  These uncertainties have led to a push for transparency in the form of a label from manufacturers and retailers that sell GM foods. With 64 countries in the world already requiring labeling of GM foods, many wonder if Canada and the United States will be next. 

In Canada, 80% of citizens support labeling, although a national vote has not taken place.  Instead, a national standard for voluntary labeling was established, but not a single company has yet labeled their products as containing GM ingredients.  However, in December 2013, NDP MP Murray Rankin introduced a bill – Bill C-257 – to make labeling in Canada mandatory.  He states, “In the opinion of the House, the government should introduce mandatory labeling of food products containing ingredients that have been genetically modified.”  You can learn more about the bill here.

The fight for the ‘right to know’ of what’s in our food is slowly but surely gaining steam in the United States.  In the US, labeling is a state issue as there is not enough pressure from citizens to make it a national vote.  However, as of 2014, 70 bills have been introduced in over 30 states to require GM food labeling.  In 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed GM labeling laws, and Vermont passed the first GM labeling bill that has no trigger clause and will go into effect in 2016.  In recent elections, Washington, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon have all voted on GM food labeling but none have passed. This past autumn, Oregon’s Measure 92 was the closest vote of the four states with 50.03% against and 49.97% in favor of the measure.  One of the most controversial issues of the election, arguments for and against labeling are presented here.  

Arguments In Favour Of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods

1. The ‘Right to Know’ and Transparency Argument

This argument is of ethical nature. Supporters of labeling claim that it is every person’s right to know what they are feeding their families. We should have information in the form of a label if a food product is GM, so we can make the decision to purchase it or not.  Also, transparency from manufacturers should come in the form of a label on their products.  It is estimated that approximately 70% of processed foods on supermarket shelves have at least one GM ingredient.  It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to provide this information to consumers so we can make an educated decision.

2. No Increase in Food Cost Due to Labeling

This argument comes as an example from other countries that have passed labeling laws.  There are 64 other countries that have passed labeling laws, and they have not seen an increase in the cost of food due to labeling.  Also, any GM food item exported from the United States to a country that has a GM food labeling law must have a label and specify which ingredients are GM.  If we are providing the information to other countries, why don’t we incorporate the labeling in Canada and the United States? 

An independent study sponsored by Consumers Union and conducted by ECONorthwest, an economics consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest, estimated the median cost of labeling GM foods. They took into account the cost of repackaging food products to food producers, the cost of changing placards in retail stores to signify raw foods that are genetically engineered, and how much of that cost food producers and retailers would decide to bear themselves or pass on to consumers.  It’s been estimated that the cost of labeling would be $2.30 per consumer annually.  This equates to about a penny a day, so supporters of labeling say that the benefits of a label would outweigh the costs passed on to the consumer. And manufacturers change their packaging every 12-15 months, so adding a small label will not increase the cost of food. 

3. Unknown Long-Term Health Effects

At present, there have been no chronic scientific studies performed to evaluate the effects of GM foods compared to conventional foods.  The substantial equivalence concept adopted in 1996 allows permission to market and sell new foods without any safety or toxicology tests as long as they were not substantially different in chemical composition to foods already on the market.  Without testing, this uncertainty makes some people uneasy, so a label on GM foods would provide consumers with a choice to avoid these products.

Arguments Against GM Food Labeling

1. Increase in Food Costs Due to Labeling 

Organic/Non-GMO Label - There are two labels already out on the market that convey the non-GMO message.  The USDA Organic label has non-GMO intrinsically built into it by requiring crops to be organically farmed and non-GMO.  The Non-GMO label is a non-profit organization that conducts third-party testing of products at the manufacturer’s request.  The threshold is <0.9% GM content in certified foods, and they have certified over 27,000 products since their start in 2005.  Opponents of labeling claim that an extra label would confuse consumers and would be redundant.

2. Increased Cost of Food for Families

One of the reasons California’s Proposition 39 in 2012 failed was the fear that food costs would rise.  An independent study was completed by two teams of researchers and an environmental consulting firm. The implementation would require the separation of different types of products based on whether or not they contained GM, which would require monitoring throughout the supply chain.  This could lead to food retailers to limit their product choices in order to avoid the extra cost of compliance.  Based on this logic, the average grocery bill would increase $400 per family of four a year.  Increasing the cost of food has direct effects on low-income families and could lead to some families skipping meals or having less nutritious options to choose from.  

3. Labeling Law Not Comprehensive

In particular, Oregon’s Measure 92 was written in a way that would cover all grocery-related foods, but not food in restaurants or animal feed.  Opponents to labeling claimed that 2/3 of food we consume would not be covered by the labeling law.  If only 1/3 of the food is covered, what would be the benefit to having a labeling law?

4. No Adverse Effects to Human Health

With the implementation of GM foods in the early 1990’s, there has been no long-term health effects noted.  Since genetic engineering is a precise method, it is less likely to produce an unexpected result. Sub-chronic and acute dietary studies have been conducted, all confirming no significant difference between conventional and GM foods.

With both sides posing compelling arguments, where do you stand on the labeling issue?  One way to make a decision is to educate yourself on both sides of the argument.  Whether you are pro-labeling or not, voice your opinion by contacting your elected representatives.  You can also sign petitions or change your grocery shopping habits to include organic/non-GMO items or not.  No matter where you stand on the labeling issue, change will not come if we don’t make our voices heard and our actions felt.