Photograph by Melanie Stetson Freeman, The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
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As the U.S. Congress and the states battle out how to label foods containing genetically modified organisms, some companies have taken to labeling foods without GMOs as Non GMO or GMO-free.

Photograph by Melanie Stetson Freeman, The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

GMOs: Is Just Any Label Enough?

The feds are poised to pass a law standardizing GMO food labels this week. But what good is a label if people don't know what it means?

Whether you’re pro- or anti-GMO foods, it seems only reasonable that the public should know whether genetically modified organisms are a component of our chips, breakfast cereals, salad fixings, and cans of chicken noodle soup. Unfortunately not everybody agrees.

Many here in Vermont were dismayed when the U.S. Senate blasted to bits the state’s recently passed Act 120, the first law in the nation requiring labeling of GMO foods. Some 84 similar bills are pending in 29 states, and Maine and Connecticut have passed their own GMO labeling laws, though each with a cautious “trigger” requirement: that is, neither will go into effect until neighboring states fall into line and take the same steps. The federal government, however, may now be taking GMO labeling into its own hands.

The proposed federal law S.764 as currently designed, does not require a clear statement in words of GMO food content as insisted upon by Vermont’s Act 120. (The Senate passed its bill last week; the House is poised to vote on its version Thursday or Friday.)

Instead, the federally approved warning label can consist of a QR (Quick Response) code, accessible by smartphone, or an 800 number that customers can call for information. These alternatives are not immediately helpful, and require time and effort on the part of consumers, many burdened with long grocery lists and fractious toddlers.

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In other words, to the majority of Americans, a GMO label on a can of corn might as well be a skull-and-crossbones.

An angry Vermont governor Peter Shumlin (D) protested the Senate’s decision, saying “For a Republican-controlled Congress that continually argues for states’ rights to act to take away Vermonters’ right to know what is in their food is the height of hypocrisy and a sad statement on the power of special interests in Congress.”

The special interests, collectively, are no mean opponent. According to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization, the food lobby spent over $100 million in the fight to block GMO labeling in 2015.

Supporters of the new proposed federal bill defend the decision as necessary for national consistency and efficiency. If food manufacturers, for example, were compelled to label their products differently for distribution in each and every state, not only would confusion ensue, but food prices would rise, as the expense of GMO labeling was passed on to consumers. Estimates on these possible food-price increases vary: a 2014 study by ECONorthwest found the overall cost of labeling to be $2.30 per person per year; the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food predicts an annual cost to families of $1,050. The Campbell Soup Company, on the other hand, the first major food manufacturer to voluntarily institute GMO labeling, pronounced the cost to consumers to be negligible.

Vermont’s GMO labeling law was promoted as purely informational and non-judgmental: consumers, lawmakers argued, regardless of their personal opinions, have a right to know what’s in their food. Over 70 percent of Vermonters agreed with them, and, according to a 2013 New York Times poll, 93 percent of Americans said the same.

The problem is that it’s not as simple as all that. Of the participants in the New York Times poll, the vast majority were convinced that GMO foods were unsafe or toxic, caused cancer or allergies, and were in general hazardous to human health. And there lies the difficulty. Despite thousands of scientific studies, support from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences, and, most recently, the concerted advocacy of 107 concerned Nobel laureates, the bulk of the public remains firmly convinced that GMOs are at best undesirable and at worst, downright dangerous. In other words, to the majority of Americans, a GMO label on a can of corn might as well be a skull-and-crossbones.

What we’ve got here is a gaping divide between reputable scientific research and public perception. Unfounded GMO fear-mongering is doing us, as a planet, more harm than good. It’s a situation not unlike that of the anti-vaccination movement, in which some shaky and now-discredited science and a lot of over-excited publicity led to rejections of childhood vaccinations, measles outbreaks, and threats to public health. With genetic modification, we’ve saved the threatened papaya from ringspot virus, created a beta-carotene-fortified rice capable of preventing blindness in vitamin-A-deficient children, and engineered a wide range of drought- and disease-resistant crops. In an increasingly populous and hungry world, it will be hard to make it without GMOs. (See What Would a World Without GMOs Look Like?)

It would be nice to think that informative GMO labeling laws would help us approach the GMO issue with balance and commonsense. After all, we’ve been eating GMO foods safely for decades. An estimated 70 percent of processed foods in American supermarkets contains GMO ingredients. About 88 percent of our corn, 93 percent of our soybeans, and 90 percent of our canola are genetically modified. The average American adult, a 2012 Environmental Working Group analysis shows, eats about 193 pounds of GMO food every year. Maybe a plethora of GMO labels will provide a reality check and some dispassionate perspective.

Of course we should know what’s in our food. It’s important to have a clear and comprehensible GMO labeling law.

But it won’t do us much good if we don’t know what that label really means.