Genetically Engineered Food Labeling

Can the government mandate that GMO foods be labeled?

| September 2014

Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber have compiled the best, most thought-provoking essays on genetically modified food by leading scientists, science writers and public health advocates in The GMO Deception (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), offering a comprehensive look at the social, political and ethical implications of food-based biotechnology. This essay from "Labeling and Consumer Activism," contributed by Phil Bereano, considers GEF labeling as an issue of free speech.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The GMO Deception.

Genetically Engineered Food Labeling is Communication

Genetic engineering consists of a set of new techniques for altering the basic makeup of plants and animals. Genes from insects, animals, and humans have been added to crop plants; human genes have been added to pigs and cattle. Most genetic engineering is designed to meet corporate—rather than consumer—needs. Foods are engineered, for instance, to produce “counterfeit freshness.” Consumers believe that the engineered physical characteristics, such as color and texture, indicate freshness, flavor, and nutritional quality. Actually, the produce is aging and growing stale, and nutritional value is being depleted. Genetic engineering techniques are biologically novel, but the industry is so eager to achieve financial success that it argues that the products of the technologies are the same, or “substantially equivalent” to normal crops. Despite the gene tinkering, the new products are not being tested extensively to find out how they differ from normal food crops, and whether they present unacceptable hazards.

Genetically engineered foods are now appearing in the supermarkets and on our dinner plates, despite consumer attempts to label these “novel foods” in order to distinguish them from more traditional ones.

The failure of the US government to require that genetically engineered foods be labeled presents consumers with a number of quandaries: issues of free speech and consumers’ right to know, religious rights for those with dietary restrictions, and cultural rights for people, such as vegetarians, who choose to avoid consuming foods of uncertain origins. Some genetic recombinations can lead to allergic or auto-immune reactions. The products of some genes which are used as plant pesticides have been implicated in skin diseases in farm and food market workers.

Product labels perform an important social function, namely communication between a seller and a would-be buyer. The struggle over labeling is occurring because industry knows that consumers do not want to eat GM foods, and that labeled products will likely fail in the marketplace. However, as the British publication The Economist noted, “if Monsanto can not persuade us it certainly has no right to foist its products on us.” Labels would counter “foisting” and are legally justifiable.

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