Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently tweeted his support for mandatory genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling on foods. The rationale is simple and alluring: Americans want to know what they’re eating and part of that means knowing if it contains a GMO ingredient or element. It’s hard to argue with such a direct reasoning—after all, this is why we have ingredient labels on food. However, the situation is slightly more complicated than it initially appears.
The simple fact is, Americans want to know what is in the food they’re eating and whether that food is genetically engineered.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 8, 2016Advertisement
GMO Labeling , GMO Benefits (and Negatives) and Potential Health Issues
Manufacturers and farmers, by in large, do not want to have to label whether their crops or products have GMO elements or not for one simple reason: a large number of consumers may avoid them if they knew. It’s a legitimate concern from a business standpoint and one that would have to be weighed against other factors unless there is a legitimate risk of harm. The problem, of course, is that there isn’t one.
GMO benefits have widely been debated due to potential health issues. So the FDA regulates genetically modified foods by requiring companies to show evidence that no potential toxins or allergens are added to the product and that its nutritional content is the same as the unmodified equivalent. What this means—as far as the FDA is concerned—a GMO tomato should be the same as an unmodified tomato as far as your body cares. It’s similar reasoning to why, for instance, they don’t require the exact type of apple, carrot, or potato to be disclosed—it’s simply not relevant as far as health decisions go.
For the record, it’s worth noting that as far as regulatory oversight goes, GMO foods actually get more scrutiny than ones that are hybridized through breeding, which is a lot less controllable and has caused known safety issues in the past with things like the toxic Lenape potato in the 1960’s.
All of this is why labeling is an issue. Companies and farmers would have to disclose information that offers no health benefit to consumers and instead could result in a distinct loss in sales. Dipping into the legal jargon for a moment, this is what is known as an “undue burden” and is one reason why regulations can get discarded. It is worth noting that, as far as consumer choice is concerned, nothing is currently stopping people who sell GMO-free foods from declaring them as such.
There are several ongoing and legitimate concerns about GMO foods, but these are all related to things like biodiversity, genetic patents, and the like. No GMO ingredient has been shown to be unsafe in humans and so far, benefits like improved shelf life, herbicide resistance, and resistance to plant diseases, are going to keep them around.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that GMO labeling shouldn’t happen. It just means that if labeling were to arise, there would have to be better reasoning than what Sanders is advocating.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Bernie Sanders, Twitter post. March 7, 2016, 5:49 p.m. https://twitter.com/SenSanders/status/707020344201256960.
“Genetically Modified Foods,” Learn Genetics web site; http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/science/gmfoods/, last accessed March 8, 2016.