GMO labeling compromise: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Republicans and democrats in the Senate have reached a compromise on federal GMO labeling. The push to “just label it” has drawn on for years, but it’s not that simple. GMOs are tough to even define, and the FDA does not have the jurisdiction to mandate a label that is not relevant to health and safety. Many insist that consumers simply have the “right to know”, but without any grounds for safety concerns, this is a compelled speech argument. Nonetheless, to prevent a patchwork of messy state laws like Vermont’s, a compromise was necessary. Compromise is good, but it can be a little awkward.

The Good

  1. Consumer empowerment. Foods containing GE ingredients will now be identifiable by text on the label or via a QR code or website on the package. Many pro-labeling activists complain about the inconvenience of having to use a smartphone to label check. But if you wanted to know how cosmetics, clothes, electronics, cars, or anything else was made you’d have to go tour a factory. Consumers have never had so much information at their fingertips.
  2. No skull and cross bones. While companies are required to make information about GE ingredients available, there doesn’t have to be a label right on the package. Labels that do not communicate legitimate health and safety concerns can elicit unnecessary alarm or create “health halos” around foods that are otherwise not nutritious.
  3. Potential for more relevant information. Imagine a future where you can scan a QR code and learn where, how, and when a food item was produced. Food journalists have repeatedly shown that puff terms like organic, locally/sustainably grown, and free range are mostly smoke and mirrors. What if we could scan a QR code and learn the farm address, harvest date, and sustainability metrics? Obviously this would require quite the paper trail, but with some of that infrastructure already in place, the path forward is clearer.

The Bad

  1. Arbitrary inclusions/exemptions. Under this bill, meat/dairy from animals fed genetically engineered feed are exempt. This makes sense as there is no measurable difference between animals fed GE and non-GE diets. However, processed foods containing byproducts from GE crops such as canola oil, corn syrup, and beet sugar are not exempt. These ingredients are chemically identical and completely indistinguishable from their non-GE sourced counterparts. This inconsistency has no logical basis.
  2. Pressure to go GMO free. Due to real or presumed consumer opposition, some companies may opt to source non-GE ingredients. Hershey has already promised to do so, and the prospect is alarming. The majority of sugar in the United States comes from domestically grown GE sugar beets, which allow farmers to decrease the volume, number of applications, and toxicity of pesticides they use. Hershey has already asked for tariff lifts on cane sugar imports to meet their demand. This is just one example of the possible economic and environmental costs that could result from a sudden demand for GE free goods.

The Ugly

  1. Would you like a side of bureaucracy with that? Opponents of GMO labeling claim label changes will increase the cost to produce goods translating to pricier groceries. Proponents of labeling insist that companies change labels all the time with no fluctuation in retail price, so the cost is clearly not substantial. Both are correct. Labeling will likely increase cost, but not because of the price for reprinting the label itself. The cost will come in the added layers of bureaucracy required to track ingredients, possibly change ingredient sourcing, or even build separate manufacturing facilities. Not to mention the inevitable legal fees when a mistake is made.
  2. Unequal access to information. Not everybody caries a smart phone or knows how to use a QR code. On a fundamental basis inequality in access to information on the basis of socioeconomic status or tech savvy is not cool. That said, a QR code stating whether a product includes GE ingredients doesn’t actually provide consumers with any necessary information. It says nothing about the safety, nutrition, or environmental sustainability of a food product. At the end of the day, if we really want to know how food is grown and produced, we’ll still have to look to farmers, scientists, and food industry professionals, not labels.