Genes form the building blocks of all life. Genetic modification — the technological shuffling of those building blocks among unrelated species — has been heralded since the 1990s as a potentially powerful agricultural tool. But pretty much all the genetically modified (GM) foods that have come to market so far have been crop varieties engineered to resist herbicides or produce insecticidal compounds (so farmers could, theoretically, apply fewer chemicals), and milk from dairy cows given a GM growth hormone that forces them to give more milk. Some countries have adopted these products, but others have banned them because the actual benefits of GM varieties remain unclear, especially as pests adapt to the traits upon which the technology relies.
Both benefits and downsides for consumers are controversial. In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled, based on woefully limited data, that GM foods were “substantially equivalent” to their non-GM counterparts. That ruling has been under fire ever since, but the government has failed to require new safety testing. Meanwhile, thousands of foods containing GM corn and soy have been introduced into our food supply (see the chart at How to Avoid Genetically Modified Food to learn how to avoid GM foods).
Recent studies have escalated public concern and renewed demands that GM foods be labeled. Studies have linked genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to cancer, deterioration of liver and kidney function, stomach inflammation, and impaired embryonic development.
Whether you’re for or against GM foods, one thing’s for certain: The science is incomplete.
A GMO labeling initiative on the 2012 ballot in California failed by 53 to 47 percent. Proponents of labeling spent $7.3 million; Big Ag and food processors spent $44 million. Labeling GM foods is about much more than just food safety. It’s about our right as consumers to know what we are eating. But labeling is also about how dominant we are going to allow Big Ag to become. Some of us don’t want to eat GM foods or feed them to our livestock. Others push for labeling because we want to make sure our food policy isn’t set by a handful of multinational corporations.
In the United States, we expect food to carry a label that tells us what’s in it. We require that our orange juice reveal if it is made directly from oranges or “from concentrate.” We require labels to tell us if salt, sugar, MSG, artificial flavors or colors, vitamins, or other ingredients have been added. We require meat labels to reveal when it has been pumped with up to a 12 percent saltwater “flavor solution.” And we require milk to indicate whether it is skim, 1 percent fat, 2 percent fat or whole. GM foods should be labeled; there is simply no good argument against telling consumers the whole story.
Monsanto and big food companies like to claim that genetic engineering is essential to feed the world’s ever-growing population. That’s nonsense — most hunger is due to economic inequality and systemic corruption that prevents food from getting to where it’s needed, not due to food shortages. And on the note of the “world’s ever-growing population,” it’s time for society to recognize that unlimited population growth is not sustainable to begin with. We need to choose a wiser course.
Survey after survey shows that 90 percent or more of us want GM foods to be labeled. The GMO-labeling initiative in California almost passed last year, despite the oceans of money pouring in to defeat it. Nearly half of U.S. states now have mandatory GM labeling on their legislative agendas.
If you’re concerned about labeling GM foods, now is the time to contact your elected representatives.