Photo credit: Robyn Beck/Getty Images
By Daniel Engber
The fight over genetically modified ingredients is almost over. The industry is backing down. In the next few months, one way or another, packaged foods made with GMOs will be labeled at your supermarket.
The only question that remains is how, exactly, the labels will be regulated and to what extent. The first state law to require GMO disclosures, passed two years ago in Vermont, comes into force this July, and recent efforts to reverse it—in the courts and in Congress—have failed. Now the big players in the food industry are lining up to make concessions to widespread public sentiment and to stave off conflicting and confusing legislation. In January, the Campbell Soup Co. (which also manufactures Swanson broths, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and V8) promised it would label all its U.S. products to indicate which contain ingredients derived from GMOs. Last week, General Mills and Mars Food made a similar announcement, and then so did Kellogg and ConAgra.
For huge companies like these, the real-life facts about GMOs—I mean, the facts about their actual effects, or noneffects, on human health and the environment—are secondary. So what if advocates for labeling come off as anti-science zealots or denialists with no more respect for expert consensus than a bunch of climate skeptics? So what if study after study shows that GM foods are safe? The people want what they want. Transparency sells.
If you’re the kind of person who frets over Americans’ lack of scientific literacy, this accommodationist position may send you into a sputtering rage. A person’s right to know, you might contend, should be in balance with his or her right to avoid unnecessary panic. The mere presence of a label has dire implications. It tells consumers that there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between GMO and non-GMO ingredients—a “material“ difference in the language of the Food and Drug Administration—and one that should be taken seriously. Yet “genetic modification” describes a process, not an end result, and there’s no evidence that this process leads to special risks. Some bioengineered options on the supermarket shelf could be better for your health than other products. Some could be better for independent farmers and their families. And some could be worse. The scarlet GMO blankets all this variation and replaces it with dread.
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