The U.S. Department of Agriculture has come up with cheerful new labels for genetically modified foods. The bright green and yellow circles depict a happy sun, a winking smiley face or a verdant landscape stamped with the letters “BE,” for “bioengineered” — rather than the familiar “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered.” It’s a shame the government is unwilling to let the facts speak for themselves.
Science has affirmed that GM foods — grown from seeds whose genes have been altered to make them resistant to insects or herbicides — are safe. There’s no need to dress up the labels to suggest that genetic modification makes foods somehow better. That risks misleading the public, just as Greenpeace and other groups have done with their baseless claims that GM crops are dangerous.
A straightforward description, not propaganda, is what American consumers want. And new evidence suggests that plain labels can help build acceptance for GM foods.
Economists who looked at prevailing attitudes in Vermont before and after a state labeling requirement went into effect there in July 2016 have found that the state’s no-nonsense labels — no logos, just the words “produced with genetic engineering” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” — led to a 19 percent drop in opposition to GM foods. Views shifted abruptly in Vermont even as general distrust of GM foods continued its steady rise everywhere else in the U.S. Earlier research had suggested that food labels give consumers a greater sense of control, and Vermont seems to bear this out. One thing’s for sure: Straightforward labels didn’t scare people, as some food makers and scientists had feared they might.
The Vermont requirement was short-lived, because a federal labeling law pre-empting state rules was passed soon after it came into effect. Public comment on the proposed national labels is open until Tuesday.
USDA officials should pay attention to the new evidence from Vermont and simplify their labels to convey information, not spin. Once they’re in use, more Americans will come to accept that GM foods are safe.
FROM AN EDITORIAL ON BLOOMBERG VIEW