However, because the federal government doesn’t require labeling of genetically modified foods, consumers typically have no way to know whether their food contains GMOs. Pro-labeling groups argue that GMOs haven’t been assessed sufficiently for long-term health effects (at least 20 years), while most medical groups and independent scientists insist that rigorous testing addressed those concerns.
If consumers want to avoid GMOs, they can seek out products that have been certified by Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be organic, which, by definition, are free of genetically modified ingredients. They also can look for the Non-GMO Project label, which companies can attach to their products by paying for third-party certification. The number of products that carry the Non-GMO label has doubled every year, Executive Director Megan Westgate tells us.
On the anti-labeling side, scientists and others who argue that GMOs are safe say GMO labels are misleading and stigmatizing. For instance, when shoppers see a “bird-friendly” label on, say, a brand of coffee, they often assume that all brands are harmful to birds, says Kent Messer, who is a behavioral economist at University of Delaware in Newark and the co-author of a report that was published in October 2015 on food labeling and consumer behaviors.
“Right now, we generally have yes or no labels that imply that something is good or bad,” Messer says. The likelihood that consumers will view GMO labels as warning labels is worrisome to Alison Van Eenennaam, who is a biotechnology specialist at University of California-Davis, because many GMO products address important agricultural problems, she says. Some advances include rice that’s enhanced with vitamin A, oranges that contain a spinach gene that makes them immune to a devastating insect pest and papayas that are immune to a virus that almost drove the tropical fruit to extinction. Van Eenennaam says stigmatizing GMOs could stifle scientific progress.
GMO labels might mislead in other ways, too, experts say. The GMO category doesn’t include foods that are developed through genetic techniques, such as mutagenesis, which involves zapping a plant with chemicals or radiation to see what mutations emerge. Nor does GMO apply to crops that were bred to include genes that were discovered through genetic engineering.
Loopholes in labeling laws also could leave many GMO foods unlabeled, says GMA’s Mike Gruber. Vermont’s law, for example, exempts any product that’s inspected by USDA. Gruber envisions a soup aisle where the minestrone would be labeled but the vegetable beef soup wouldn’t, even though both contained GMOs.
A better system, Messer says, would be to include two labels—one that discloses GMOs and one that explains scientific consensus on the issue.
ENVIRONMENTAL ASSAULT. In addition to health concerns and a desire for more transparency in labeling, environmental groups and organic-food companies say mandatory labeling will reduce the use of toxic herbicides. Their argument focuses on glyphosate, which is categorized as a probable human carcinogen by WHO.
Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used weed-killing herbicide and an active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, which farmers spray on crops that were modified genetically to tolerate it. As GMOs have become more common, so, too, has the use of glyphosate, says Mary Ellen Kustin, who is a senior policy analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is a nonprofit research organization.
USDA data show that between 1992 and 2012, the use of glyphosate increased sixteenfold, Kustin says. As weeds become resistant to glyphosate, growers use more of it and turn to other toxic pesticides, including 2,4-D, which is an ingredient in Agent Orange. Glyphosate now is prevalent in waterways nationwide, according to EWG.
However, the connection between glyphosate and GMOs might not be so clear-cut, says weed scientist Andrew Kniss of University of Wyoming. Even though the use of glyphosate increased since 1992, he says GMO technology isn’t necessarily to blame.
Overall crop acreage increased over the same period, and that would lead to more herbicide use, Kniss says. Farmers used plenty of chemicals before Roundup came along, Kniss says, and weeds developed resistance to those, too.