How to Tell Where You Stand on GMO Labeling: A Handy Guide!

Last week, the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labeling finished its meeting. Codex Alimentarius is a joint commission of two United Nations agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The committee meeting was in preparation for a full commission meeting that started on Friday. And one of their agenda items was to discuss a recommendation for adopting worldwide labeling standards for foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

As a member of the locavore movement and someone who cares about eating, you may feel predisposed to come out against GMOs. Hadn’t you ought to demand they be labeled so you can refuse to buy them? (Because of course you know that just tacking on a label will have no effect. The label would have to make the market for GMOs change or disappear.)

But how much do you REALLY know about genetic engineering and GMO labeling? How can you be sure you really think what you think you think? Use this handy guide to find out if you actually have an opinion on the issue! In this article, I lay out five major controversies. Score your reaction to each, and then find out whether you’re for or against labeling.

Controversy 1: Is it or isn’t it dangerous to eat genetically engineered foods?

The major concerns around eating GMOs are that the modifications could cause toxicity; introduce allergens; remove important nutrients; or cause long-term unforeseen health effects. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out that if modified foods are composed of familiar fats, carbohydrates, and proteins with known effects in the body, then they pose no special risk.

This logic seems tight enough, and in fact people around the world have been eating GMOs for twenty years with little incident. Proponents point to this real-life laboratory as proof of these foods’ safety. But many scientific studies have shown possible links between GMOs and health problems. Whether the studies are sound or not, they’ve done a lot to poke holes in the public’s confidence—and possibly in the FDA’s reasoning.

Either way, there are already some labeling laws that would cover GMOs. The FDA already requires foods to carry a label if they may contain an allergen. This would include labeling for foods with soybean or peanut DNA. A theoretical apple with a heavily engineered nutritional profile could not, by law, be sold as an “apple” anymore. And foods carrying the “organic” label are not allowed to contain any GMOs. The tough part, though? There’s no single agency in charge of monitoring GMOs. The FDA regulates whether food products are safe to eat, but it doesn’t regulate whole food like fruits, vegetables, and grains. That’s the job of the USDA, which is also responsible for providing markets for crops. Might there be a conflict of interests there?

Score Yourself:

  • “I’m not worried that GMOs are unsafe to eat; or I am satisfied with existing labeling standards.” You may be AGAINST labeling. Your starting score is zero.
  • “I worry about being exposed to health risks particular to GMOs. Or maybe I don’t eat animals—and that extends to DNA that originated in animals but may have been spliced into a plant." You may be FOR labeling. Your starting score is 1.

Controversy 2: Are GMOs good or bad economics?

With genetic engineering, biotech companies can develop food crops (and even animals!) with unusual superpowers like high yields, enhanced nutritive qualities, or resistance to pests. Is this boon or bane? Depends on your outlook.

On the one hand, large corporate farms could use the technology to produce ever larger yields at ever lower costs, undercutting prices for other farmers. As organic and non-GMO foods get relatively more expensive, these producers could go out of business. The U.S. grain market, which even today undercuts world grain prices, might drop the bottom out from under other nations. Already, developed nations are the only source for world farmers to purchase GMO seeds. If developing nations continue to rely on, and pay, rich countries for their food supply, then they will not be in a position ever to develop their own policies or take over responsibility for their food security.

On the other hand, despite whatever problems they bring, GMOs do offer potential for higher yields, more nutritious crops, and fewer crop failures. We’re in the midst of a worldwide food crisis. The human population keeps rising, especially among poor nations. Until we find ways to produce more and better crops from existing farmland, we face famine and rioting. In the United Kingdom, where GMOs have been banned for more than a decade, this stark reality is leading people to reopen the debate on whether the risks of GMOs are acceptable, or whether first-world views of those risks are the most important viewpoint.

Score Yourself:

  • “I think GMOs can augment food security worldwide and will be a benefit to farmers in developing nations. Here at home, I’m happy to pay less for nutritious foods that can be produced more cheaply.” You may be AGAINST labeling. Take away one point.
  • “GMOs are one more unfair competitive advantage for factory farms at home and one more barrier to developing nations’ independence.” You may be FOR labeling. Add one point.

Controversy 3: Are GMOs safe for the environment?

It is all but inevitable that engineered traits will get into the landscape. It’s already documented: pollen from GMO plants will blow into grasslands, seeds will fall off trucks or trains. Is this a big deal or not?

If the traits have any impact off the farm, then it is a big deal. For example, some GMO corn plants manufacture their own pesticides—specifically, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, which kills caterpillars. Numerous studies have shown that the corn doesn’t do anything much to monarch butterflies. But could the Bt trait make its way off farms and turn up in other plants? Could it hurt butterflies? Does anyone know? We know the insecticides sprayed on a conventional field DO make their way off the farm to kill tons of butterflies and other animals. Bt corn reduces or eliminates the need for spraying.

Other traits, such as resistance to herbicides, are a problem if they evolve in the weeds that farmers are trying to kill. If the weeds are as “RoundUp Ready” as soybeans, then it doesn’t help to spray RoundUp or grow the soybeans. This issue may not have any real impact outside farming. After all, nobody sprays RoundUp on forests or grasslands. There is no context for worrying that over time, these plants will stop responding to herbicides.

Score Yourself:

  • “I am not concerned that engineered traits pose a hazard when they make their way off farms. In fact, they’re often a better alternative than traditional pest control.” You may be AGAINST labeling. Take away one point.
  • “By definition, engineered genetics degrade the environment when they escape, and the consequences could be worse than we understand now.” You may be FOR labeling. Add one point.

Controversy 4: Are GMOs ethical?

Scientists have long identified the functions of specific genes; for example, tolerance to chemicals or drought or production of certain nutrients. Gene splicing technology can pick out these specific genes and insert them from one organism to another. In cisgenic splicing, a gene for resistance to disease could be selected from one plant and inserted into another plant of the same species. Theoretically, the new disease-resistant crop could have been produced with traditional breeding, but it would have taken a much longer time and might have produced generations of plants with undesirable traits.

In transgenic splicing, the barriers of species — and even of biological kingdom — can be transcended entirely. In one example, tomatoes and tobacco were outfitted with fish genes that cause cells to produce antifreeze. It’s hoped that such plants will eventually be able to survive a freeze, sparing farmers from what could otherwise be devastating crop failures. In nature, bacteria do their own “gene splicing” all the time: as single-celled organisms, they’re perfectly capable of acquiring new traits by sharing or scavenging new DNA and incorporating it into their genome. But is it OK when we do it too? After all, scientists aren’t bacteria; food crops aren’t single-celled organisms.

Score Yourself:

  • “Science is amazing! I don’t have any ethical issue with genetic engineering, even transgenics. Human beings do all kinds of things to modify nature, and this technique isn’t even unique to humans.” You may be AGAINST labeling. Deduct one point.
  • “Human beings shouldn’t be playing God with genetics. Gene splicing violates the integrity of creation. I don’t want any part of it.” You may be FOR labeling. Add one point.

Controversy 5: All other questions aside, can we even really do this?

To make a labeling system work, we would have to develop ways to do at least some of the following things.

  1. Know where GM crops go. This might mean a tracking or chain of custody system from seed to grocery store—or, in the case of restaurants, from seed to table.
  2. Develop the means and ability to detect engineered genetics at every handoff point. These might include when farmers buy seed, when they sell crops to wholesalers or food manufacturers, when wholesalers or manufacturers sell to retail outlets, and when consumers buy from any point in the chain.
  3. Develop a system of standards. How much GM material is too much? Who must label what, and what must the label say? What are the consequences for failing to meet the standards, and who enforces them?
  4. Decide who should pay, and who will pay for all this. Will GM companies pay for the whole system? Will farmers, or manufacturers, or retailers? How? Will the cost be wrapped into food prices, making consumers pay? Will it be funded with a federal tax so everyone pays?

Score Yourself:

  • “This sounds difficult to enact and impossible to enforce. I’m not sure it would have the intended effect.” You may be AGAINST labeling. Deduct one point.
  • “Consumers have a right to know what they’re eating, and we’ll figure out how to make it work.” You may be FOR labeling. Add one point.

Total up! How many points do you have? Now take that figure and throw it over your left shoulder. I can’t boil the decision down to a simple score, and I have no idea what yours means. There are many factors, both rational and emotional, to weigh. But maybe if you can figure out where you stand on each of these controversies, you’ll be one step closer to knowing what you think about GMO labeling.

Amy Boland is a Twin Cities writer and food enthusiast. You can read more of her food musings on her blog Cook 'Em if You Got 'Em. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Feeling Sad: Here are 7 Ways to Make it to Spring.