Lawmakers in Minnesota and nearly two dozen other states are considering whether to require labels on genetically engineered foods and seeds — also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The United States is the biggest producer of biotech crops, and Americans who choose not to eat genetically engineered foods are reasonably asking for information that takes the guesswork out of buying groceries. Companion bills introduced in the state House (HF850) and Senate (SF821) last month await action in respective agricultural committees, which would be wise to support them.
At least 60 countries worldwide require the labels. American support ranges between 80 to 90 percent, depending on the study. Public demand prompted the Texas-based Whole Foods Market grocery chain, which caters to health-conscious consumers, to recently call for GMO labeling on products in its 300 stores by 2018.
As Americans awaken in greater numbers to the link between nutrition and health, they’re demanding transparency on food labels in order to make the best choices for their diets, whether because of allergies, diabetes, vegetarianism, religion or other reasons. As a result, food labels are continually evolving. Today, they provide wide-ranging information, from sodium, cholesterol and fat content to whether a product is sweetened with aspartame, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or other additives.
U.S. consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they’re buying, and that’s currently not the case with genetically engineered ingredients, which are in the majority of processed foods in U.S. supermarkets. The nation’s most powerful biotech, agribusiness, chemical and packaged-food companies are spending millions to prevent change.
A California referendum requiring GMO labeling lost last year, in part because the $9.2 million raised by proponents was no match for the $46 million spent by opponents Monsanto, Hershey, Coke, Pepsi and other companies, including Minnesota-based Cargill, General Mills, Hormel Foods and Land O’Lakes.
Some companies argue that GMO labels will hurt sales and raise suspicions about their products. Others oppose a patchwork of state-by-state regulations, which they say will add complexity and costs to their packaging operations.
Numerous organizations have deemed GMO foods safe, including the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization. Minnesota proposals rightly call for neutral labeling — “produced with genetic engineering.” If adopted, the labeling would begin in 2015.
GMO technology is relatively new. Monsanto unveiled crops resistant to insects and herbicides in the 1990s. The process is now used in numerous ways, from adding nutrients to crops to producing crops more resistant to extreme weather.
GMO-wary consumers argue the long-term impact of the foods hasn’t been tested. Some fear that altering plant DNA may create new food allergies or other health issues. Environmental concerns are mounting, too: Farmers said GMOs initially allowed them to kill weeds without harming crops, but some weeds are resistant to the ingredients and require more chemical use. Also, scientists are debating whether GMOs hastened the decline of the monarch butterfly.
Minnesota lawmakers need to craft legislation that avoids the pitfalls of a defunct 1994 Vermont law that mandated labels on milk from cows injected with an artificial growth hormone. Monsanto successfully sued on the grounds that milk producers’ First Amendment rights were violated. The law’s poor wording also put the state in a position of having to prove that labeling protected consumers’ health.
What’s at stake in the Minnesota proposals isn’t food safety, but basic consumer information. It’s encouraging that Americans want to know more about the foods they eat. Without transparency in GMO labeling, they’ll be left in the dark.