GMOs and Non-GMOs – To Label or Not to Label?

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Tiina Seppäläinen

Consumers like you and me are becoming increasingly concerned about the growth of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food system. In a recent poll conducted by MSNBC, 96% of over 45,000 respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question: “Do you believe genetically modified foods should be labeled?” Other surveys show similar results. Consumers are demanding more information and transparency from the biotech companies that alter food crop species through gene manipulation.

Since the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops in 1996, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, corn and cotton have become the most prevalent bio-tech crops. Because of the extensive use of soy and corn in our food system, 6080% of packaged products on super market store shelves contain GE ingredients. Other GMOs that you may be inadvertently ingesting include sweeteners made from corn, modified food starch, and canola oil. While the Americas and Asian countries are rapidly expanding their acreage of GM crops, adoption remains low in Europe due to regulatory restrictions.

To help consumers make informed choices, several countries including Australia, Japan, China and the European Union have mandatory labeling laws. The European Union legislation is one of the most stringent, requiring labeling of food products, food ingredients and additives that contain authorized GE ingredients. These regulations also recognize the reality that conventional food products may be accidentally contaminated during harvesting, storage, production, or transportation. If the traces of GMOs are below a limit of 0.9%, labeling is not required.

In the United States, the FDA does not, in practice, require labeling of foods containing GMOs. There are pros and cons to labeling laws, due to consumer perceptions, economic impacts, and testing requirements. Estimates of the costs associated with labeling range from a few dollars per person per year to even 10% of a consumer’s annual food bill. For consumers, does it really boil down to a right to know what is in our foods and how the ingredients were produced?

The Organic Consumers Association has initiated a campaign to demand labeling laws. The Label GMOs organization in partnership with the True Food Network recently started a 2012 California ballot initiative. From a practical perspective, it is surprising that some organizations are promoting campaigns to both label foods with GE ingredients while also supporting the Non-GMO Project in its efforts to certify foods without them. Do we really need both?

While organic foods by law should not contain GMOs, cross-contamination does occur, primarily through sloppy handling of seeds or cross-pollination. With trace amounts of GMOs found in organic and natural foods, the Non-GMO Project was initiated to address this vulnerability. This non-profit collaboration developed an independent certification to offer consumers a choice of products that are virtually GMO free, applying the same 0.9% limit as the European Union. The goal is to reassure consumers that organic and natural foods have not been contaminated, implying that they are safe(r) to eat. Alleviating consumer concerns supports continued sales growth in the lucrative LOHAS segment. It may even attract more customers who have become concerned about GMOs in conventional foods.

What do you think?  The expense of labeling programs is ultimately born by us, the consumers, in the form of higher food costs. Are you willing to pay for labeling? Should both non-GMO and GMO foods be labeled?

7 responses

  1. One evening during the wet summer of 1816, a group of English intellectuals read a French translation of German ghost stories (“Fantasmagoriana”) in the Villa Diodati in Switzerland (they were rich intellectuals). Afterward, the host suggested they all write a horror story. Everyone did except Mary. She kept demurring, saying she had not yet thought of anything suitable. Then one night they discussed the fantastic rumor that a scientist had electrically “galvanized” a piece of a worm; an electric current had made it twitch. Mary Shelley began writing a moral cautionary tale of science meddling with nature: “Frankenstein.”
    In 1816, the Industrial Revolution had just begun. Dizzying technological advancements such as the spinning jenny displaced workers from their livelihoods. Angry bands of men calling themselves Luddites smashed machines, murdered industrialists, and fought with the military.
    Just as the Industrial Revolution triggered riots, so has the biotech revolution today: vandals have uprooted genetically engineered (GE) crops and burned research facilities. Recently, Marie Mason, who said she was acting on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front, was sentenced to 22 years for torching the Michigan State University’s Agriculture building. She told the judge, “I meant to inspire thought and compassion, not fear.”
    That humans have been altering the genetic structures of their food for 10,000 years gets lost in the shouting. Consider this: natural breeding involves the random mixing of tens of thousands of genes (genes are recipes for proteins) from two parent plants, resulting in entirely new proteins and other plant chemicals never before part of the food supply, but anti-GE advocates find this practice natural.
    Or as a European Union report put it, “(A) genome (e.g., all the genes that make up an organism’s DNA) is not a static entity but a dynamic structure continuously refining its gene pool. So, for a scientist in genetics, the act of splicing to generate a transgenic organism is a modest step when compared to the genomic changes induced by all the ‘crosses’ and breeding events used in agriculture and husbandry.” Now, instead of breeding and repeatedly crossbreeding out unwanted traits, agronomists can place a single trait into a plant.
    Nearly 200 years after fabulist Mary Shelley raised Romantic objections to science, some have labeled GM food as “Frankenfood.” Historically, worries about new technology have been wide of the mark. In 1825, Britain’s Quarterly Review howled about “(L)ocomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches!” Some physicians predicted that the incredibly high speeds (nearly 20 miles per hour!) would cause psychological harm. Veterinarians worried that passing trains would cause pregnant mares to spontaneously abort. “We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, ” the Review admonished.” Can’t be too careful, now can we?
    “(T)he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” says Stewart Brand, leading environmentalist who authored The Whole Earth Catalog. “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defense of a bizarre idea of what is ‘natural’…we make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.”
    “After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted,” writes Pamela Ronald, Professor of plant pathology at University of California, Davis. “GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.” Two-thirds of the processed food in our nation’s food system is GE.
    I realize that Pamela Ronald has been called ‘a shill for industry’ in a recent letter to this newspaper’s editor. Professor Ronald is married to a certified organic gardener; together they have written a book called “Tomorrow’s Table.” She has developed rice that can withstand two weeks of inundation, which will help poor farmers in Asia survive the monsoons. By the way, note the use of the term “poor farmers”: about ninety percent of farmers growing biotech crops are small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries , the majority of them in China.
    It’s not Frankenfood; it’s just food, like we have been eating for thousands of generations, and it holds the promise to feed those most in need. “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods,” says Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya, “but can we please eat first?”

    1. Norm: some issues that need to be explained further.
      “humans have been altering the genetic structures of their food for 10,000 years gets lost in the shouting.”
      ** Yes, humans have been ‘altering the genetic structures’ for eons through a process called “Natural selection.” You breed one corn plant with another, and perhaps you get a new variety of corn. Genetic engineering entails taking genes from anything, like a bacterium, and putting it into something else, like a corn plant. A significant difference exists where naturally, bacteria and corn can try to breed for years, but nothing can come of it, i.e. IT IS UNNATURAL. The Bt toxin that is produced by our American Corn “farmers” contains unnatural products, along with the genetic co-modifiers, etc…. Does this sound the same as “natural selection”? It sounds more like a nation-wide, uncontrolled bio-experiment to me.

      The FDA and USDA have “helpful” former executives from Monsanto and other BigAgra companies, which help to pass along the corporate-sponsored “Safety” results. “Of course it is safe. We made it, and we tested it.”

      BigAgra claims we need this to “feed the hungry.” This “food product” has been around for 20 years, and there are still the hungry. What do you get when you produce more food? More people. There will always be the hungry. Americans have gotten fatter, however, perhaps on all of that cheap, GM-corn-fed, cloned cattle, treated with growth hormones and antibiotics (yummy!). But now, we also have a compromised eco / agricultural system, a seed company with the ultimate goal of monopoly (the corporate nirvana), and a federal government helping it along (campaign donations).

      Any third-party, independent testing is highly discouraged, and if anyone publishes any unfortunate results, they are crushed from the scientific community.

      Why would anyone chose to eat this stuff? To prevent discrimination, these companies have colluded with government to forbid labeling of these food products.

      Chances are that GM food product is safe to eat, but what happens when you have kids? Has your own DNA been “modified”? We will have to wait until the next generation to see the results of this experiment.

      Eat wisely.

  2. The reasons for there not being labels on gmo foods, and by-products, is simply because of the swinging door between agricultural biotech companies like Monsanto and the U.S. government. The world-wide deregulation of gmo labeling requirements would also open up free trade of these genetically engineered and modified foods particularly to the European countries which currently do not even allow rBGH in their milk.

  3. you know the term lessons learned, right?, then just answer the question ?how long did it took for experts scientist to know that ddt was bad for humans, environment or for the whole planet?

  4. I would definitely like to see GMO’s labeled. My thinking is that labeling GMO’s would make these products more expensive, thus making consumers less likely to buy them. Purchasing habits are often cost-driven, so why would consumers pay more for GMO products when they can pay less for conventionally grown products? If a consumer is faced with the same food, one organically-grown and one GMO-grown, for the same price, my hope is that (s)he would choose organic.

    If GMO growers are somehow responsible for paying for labelling, maybe they will decide not to grow GMO crops. Of course I would rather things be grown organically, but I would choose conventionally-grown over GMO’s. We already know how bad chemicals can be, but GMO’s are an unknown beast and I’m afraid of what will happen to ecosystems of the world if they continue to be grown as unchecked and rampantly as they currently are.

  5. I would imagine if we did require our food to be labeled, more people would ask questions. Important questions! We (the consumer) are responsible for what we put in our bodies and in the bodies of our children. The more information we have the better our decisions will be! We are blessed to live in the country, because we are free to make our own decisions (most of the time). I would like to see the government step up and listen to what we are saying, please label our food so we can make educated decisions!

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