I have written several columns explaining the scientific conclusion that the use of genetic modification to produce seeds for growing produce for human consumption is safe, environmentally friendly and necessary to provide food to prevent world hunger in following decades. Some Luddites who want to eliminate the technology altogether and others who believe they have a right to know if they are eating such ingredients have been campaigning aggressively in the last year to have food products labeled that contain genetically modified organisms.
There are three ways proposed to accomplish labeling: to have the Food and Drug Administration require it; for states to pass laws requiring it; or for food manufactures to voluntarily label such products as GMO-free.
The FDA requires labeling for two reasons; nutritional content and warning of a known health hazard. A non-GMO label would convey nothing about nutritional content; and if GMO products are found to have an increased health risk, regulations in North America already require they be labeled as such. GMO products must undergo the same health safety evaluations as conventional products before they are allowed to enter the marketplace. After about 30 years of studies showing the technology is safe, the majority of scientists see no need for – nor do they support – labeling (“Why we will need genetically modified foods, MIT Technology Review, Feb. 2014)
In addition to the lack of valid evidence that GMOs are dangerous to health, studies show – to be absolutely accurate about GMO content, which FDA regulation would require – the U.S. food wholesale and delivery system would have to be duplicated at tremendous expense. The magnitude of the problem can be seen from studies showing between 70 and 80 percent of processed foods on the market today contain some genetically engineered organisms. Everyone, including those who are not concerned about the issue, and particularly the poor, would have to share in those increased food costs. For these reasons, it is highly improbable that the FDA would agree to any type of mandatory labeling.
Several states are considering enacting GMO-labeling laws, but such legislation would face the same accuracy concerns and unfair costs preventing the FDA from enacting regulations while also creating a complicated patchwork of labeling laws between states confusing rather than informing customers. A mishmash of state laws is the worst possible outcome.
So what about voluntary labeling? There is nothing to prevent food companies today from labeling as long as they make no specific medicinal claim on their label. But the FDA does not require or monitor companies to prove what ingredients are in their products – or for that matter, whether or not the amount of an ingredient listed on the label is accurate. And that is the problem with this solution.
It is useful to take a page from the herbal remedies and food supplements industry experience when considering voluntary and unregulated labeling. There have been several studies where these products were randomly selected off the shelves of natural food stores and tested to see if the ingredient listed on the label matched what was in the container. The results showed wide variations from containing more of the ingredient than shown on the label (which could be dangerous) to none at all. One professor of pharmacology said you are more protected when you eat a bag of Doritos regarding what it contains than when you take an herbal remedy in the United States.
We should expect the same labeling misinformation from some companies whenever voluntary and unmonitored advertising can be used to market products, especially when the citizens themselves cannot detect if the information is correct. Gluten-free products are a good example. Estimates are only 1 to 2 percent of the U.S. population are physiologically gluten intolerant. The majority of citizens who are buying gluten-free labeled products or eating gluten-free food in restaurants are doing so, one would have to believe, because it is a fad. With no “bodies in the streets,” who would know if the labels are accurate? And with no health issues related to GMOs, their absence in food products would be undetectable.
What needs to be recognized is without scientific justification, the costs for the unnecessary labeling will be unfairly borne by all citizens in order to benefit the few who want to believe they are not consuming a genetically altered ingredient. And those costs would skyrocket if GMO labeling becomes a legal requirement.
Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.