GMO labeling: Is the fight worth it?

January 14

The most visible and contentious debate in our food supply is undoubtedly over labeling of genetically modified organisms. 

In the spirit of Unearthed, I’ll tell you where I stand: I support it, but I didn’t always. 

My opposition hinged on the scientific consensus that GMOs aren’t harmful to eat, but it’s clear that, while true, that’s not sufficient. The primary argument in favor is that people are entitled to know what they’re eating, and the history of food labeling in this country supports that idea. There’s no unifying principle for what goes on a label. We label trans fats, which are bad for you, and fiber, which is good for you. We have ingredient lists that simply tell you what you’re eating, and country-of-origin labels, which let you make decisions based on whatever ideas you have about domestic and foreign foods. Safety is only one of many concerns that drive labeling.

But, just as GMO safety doesn’t lock up the position that we shouldn’t label, a right to know doesn’t single-handedly justify the position that we should. There are a few other things I think we should keep in mind:

1. We already know if we’re eating GMOs.

Answering one simple question will tell you: Do you eat processed foods? If you do, you’re eating GMOs. If you don’t, you’re not. That simple test isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it’s pretty close. If you want to get closer, a few facts will take you there. 

First, the whole foods. Most Hawaiian papayas are (they’re resistant to the ringspot virus, which was a serious threat to the industry). Some sweet corn and squash also are, but those three are the only current exceptions to the whole-foods rule. For those few exceptions, organic is a sure-fire non-GMO alternative.

The processed foods are a little trickier to navigate. The four crops responsible for almost all of the GMO foods in this country are corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. Avoiding the first three is straightforward; sugar is harder.

Because virtually all of those crops (90 percent, give or take) are genetically modified, it’s safe to assume that any ingredient derived from corn, soy, or canola is from a GM variety.  Some of the ingredients are easy to identify; others aren’t.  Although soy can crop up in unexpected places (lecithin, an emulsifier, is usually made from it), the main source of GMOs in our food supply is corn.  The list of corn products is long and, sometimes, mysterious.  Dextrose, maltodextrin, and xanthan gum can all be corn-based.

The sugar that appears on product ingredient lists is harder to pin down because, although almost all sugar beets are GMO, beet sugar represents a little less than half of the sugar we use in the United States. Unless the label says “cane sugar,” it’s a crapshoot. 

With an ingredient list and Google, you can find out in a matter of minutes whether that granola bar, or those cookies, or that frozen lasagna contains GM ingredients. But the first rule stands: If it’s processed food, it probably does.

However, the fact that it’s easy to figure out (with a reasonable degree of certainty) whether your food is genetically modified is of limited significance, because . . . .

2. Most people don’t care.

When you ask someone a variation of the question “Do you think genetically engineered foods should have labels?” they are very likely to say yes, and so polls often find large majorities — sometimes north of 90 percent — who say they want genetically modified food labeled. 

But it’s not clear they want it all that much. While the yes-or-no version of the question gets nearly everyone to say yes, a recent Rutgers University poll, which dug deeper into attitudes toward GM food, found that a quarter of consumers had never heard of GMOs, and only 43 percent were aware that they’re sold in supermarkets. When the labeling question was asked in an open-ended format (“What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already there?”), only 7 percent mentioned GMOs. Just a quarter of respondents believed they had ever eaten a genetically modified food, and most had at least some negative perceptions. Only 45 percent thought they were safe to eat. Given that probably all of us have eaten GMOs, and that the scientific community seems to agree that they are safe to eat, it’s hard to see the poll results as evidence that consumers are engaged on the issue.

If people wanted to stop eating GMOs, it would be easy to do. And I suspect some people are checking ingredient lists, cutting way back on processed foods and buying organic.  But the percent of U.S. corn and soy that’s genetically modified is stable or increasing, indicating that those consumers aren’t making a big dent.

Given that most people don’t pay much attention to GMOs, and that the people who do pay attention have a pretty good way of finding out whether they’re eating them, it’s a little troubling that . . . .

3. The labeling issue is using up important resources.

Think of all the money! Many millions were spent — on both sides, but mostly by biotech and the Grocery Manufacturers Association — on a ballot initiative last year in Washington state that would have required GMO labeling for many food products. And there’s also activist capital. The legislative efforts, at both the state and federal level, are being driven by people who care deeply about our food and how it’s regulated. Given the big companies’ access to power, those activists are an important check, and their efforts are a critical resource.

Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, says there are many pressing, equally important food supply issues: “That our food is safe, that people have enough to eat, that we grow our food in ways that protect the environment, that we raise animals humanely, that we treat workers with dignity, and that people have the ability to make choices.” Why focus on GMO labeling, I asked him, when most of the information necessary to choose whether or not to consume them is already on the box — albeit in the small-print ingredient list — rather than on those other issues, about which we have almost no way to make informed decisions?

The information must be clear and obvious, says Faber. “Most people are focused on taste, price and convenience. They’re not as educated as a food writer from The Washington Post.”

Faber adds that “smart companies are recognizing that the long-term trend is toward more disclosure and not less.” That reality, he says, might be the single best argument for GMO labeling. It — or even the threat of it — could be the first step toward a system in which transparency becomes one way companies compete. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s already do it, and General Mills’ announcement that Cheerios would drop GMOs indicates that the big manufacturers are paying close attention. 

Regardless of your position on GMOs, or on labeling, it’s hard to oppose transparency.

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