Is the GMO Labeling Battle Almost Over?
When Jenny Bradford goes shopping, she does what she can to not buy foods made with genetically modified ingredients. The stay-at-home mom, yoga instructor, and “Instagram yogi,” as she jokingly refers to herself, said she has roughly an 80–20 rule: 80 percent of what she buys is free of genetically engineered ingredients.
Although she tries to avoid GMOs, “I’m aware when I do purchase things with canola oil in them, and I say, well, we’re eating these GMOs,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in suburban Dallas, the sounds of her two young kids playing in the backyard fading in and out of range. “I am aware when I am not doing it—but sometimes I just don’t have the option.”
Bradford, who used to run a popular blog about parenting called Living Consciously, clearly knows what to look for to avoid GMOs, but she still supports mandatory labeling laws, even if they wouldn’t much change the way she shops.
Bradford is more concerned with residue from glyphosate, a pesticide many GMO crops are engineered to withstand, than with any fear over GMOs being unsafe. While she wouldn’t mind seeing a GMO label take the form of a strongly worded warning, akin to what’s slapped on the side of a pack of cigarettes, Bradford realizes that isn't likely to happen. “I don’t think that’s a reasonable request for companies,” she said of such aggressive labeling language.
Rather, she’d like to see something similar to what’s done in Europe, where GMO ingredients are marked as such on the ingredient list. “I would love to see that as a minimum,” she said.
She’s not alone—numerous polls have found that a vast majority of Americans, sometimes upwards of 90 percent, support mandatory labeling of GMOs. One of two labeling bills being considered in the U.S. Senate would set the minimum standards that Bradford is hoping for. On Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced legislation that would set a mandatory federal labeling standard. The lawmakers are under pressure to set some sort of federal standard before Vermont’s own mandatory labeling law goes into effect on July 1.
Outlined in the Merkley bill are four ways that companies could label products that contain GMOs: including the words “genetically modified” in parentheses after the G.E. item is listed in the ingredients, marking genetically engineered with an asterisk and subsequent explanation, a declaration on the back label that the item was “produced with genetic engineering,” or a symbol developed by the FDA with industry input.
The other bill, a version of what has been called the DARK Act (for Denying Americans the Right to Know), would supersede state-level laws like Vermont’s (something Merkley’s bill would do as well) and set a voluntary federal labeling standard for GMO labeling. Earlier this week, the bill, from Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Mo., passed the Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support.
Pro-labeling groups are lining up in support of the Merkley bill. “It’s a hell of a lot better approach than what the Ag Committee did yesterday,” Patty Lovera, assistant director for Food & Water Watch, said in an interview about the dueling bills. “If you’re going to have a federal standard, the federal standard should be to label.”
With the food industry pushing for so-called smart labels and other transparency measures that don’t put info about genetically engineered ingredients on the product itself, having on-package labeling in the conversation at all feels like a small victory to folks like Lovera.
“We’re happy to see a bill that says it has to be on the package—because that has been a battle to get to that point,” she said.
Would a parenthetical disclosure of GMO ingredients represent a significant victory? “Not by my standards,” Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University and a leading critic of the food industry’s influence in the politics, wrote in an email. But the pro-labeling crowd is dealing with an industry, as Nestle said, that sees any form of label as a nonstarter. “From the food industry’s standpoint, anything noticeable is equivalent to a skull-and-crossbones,” she said.
To wit, the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, an industry-backed group that has lobbied against state labeling laws, dismissed Merkley’s proposal outright, saying, “It can’t pass, period,” in an interview with Food Navigator.
In 2014, the major pro-labeling groups, including Just Label It and U.S. Right to Know, spent just over $1 million on their efforts and were crossing the $1.5 million threshold in August 2015, according to Civil Eats. That’s by no means small change—but it is still far less than the $51 million the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, spent lobbying against labeling laws in 2015.
The reasons for both sides’ spending and entrenched positions are less clear when you look beyond the simple question of whether or not to label. Bradford may be hoping to avoid exposure to glyphosate, which is used heavily on GMO crops such as corn and soy and was recently declared a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm. But not all consumers are as savvy. According to a 2015 Pew Research survey, 57 percent of adults believe that eating GMO foods is unsafe—a conviction that the scientific research on GMOs roundly refutes. Institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the U.K.’s Royal Academy of Medicine say that to date, there is no sound science linking human consumption of GMOs with health risks.
The rise in GMO crops in the United States since their commercial debut in the early 1990s has, however, caused a massive spike in the use of glyphosate. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Science Europe found that 75 percent of all glyphosate use has occurred in the past decade, which has seen an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds plaguing farmers. The chemical was long considered a safer alternative to other weed killers, but the WHO announcement has changed the conversation—and revealed a seemingly significant failure in oversight. The FDA, for example, will only begin to test for glyphosate residues on crops this year—yet no one is suggesting a label declaring identifying foods made with ingredients treated with glyphosate.
Nestle believes the whole battle over labeling—and perhaps many of the fears and misunderstandings about genetically engineered ingredients—could have been resolved more than 20 years ago.
“I believe that the GMO industry made a huge mistake in 1994 when it lobbied successfully against having to be labeled,” she wrote. “I thought this was unfair to consumers, would destroy trust in GMOs (and in the FDA), and would end up hurting the industry and generating opposition. In other words, the GMO industry brought the current state of affairs on itself. Taking away consumer choice is never a good idea.”
“At this point,” Nestle added, “the more prominent and more required the label, the better.”