How do you know if the food you are eating is genetically engineered? The tomatoes in your salad and the oil in your frying pan are both at risk. Even your soft drink could contain genetically engineered corn syrup. Without labels to tell you if a product is genetically engineered or has genetically engineered ingredients, you simply don’t know what you’re eating.
A great amount of attention has been paid to the issue of labeling because your right to know is at stake. At the heart of the labeling debate is the struggle between a corporation’s right to “commercial speech” and citizens’ fundamental right to know what they are buying and eating.
The decision to allow the public to consumer unlabeled genetically engineered food strikes some people as grossly undemocratic and slanted too far in favor of corporate interests. Should our society allow the purported commercial rights of a corporation to supersede the citizen’s right to make informed decisions in the marketplace?
The responsibility (and liability, when health/environmental problems occur) to prove safety should rest with the agribusiness giants who create genetically engineered food. Instead, we are in the unenviable position of having an untested technology thrust upon us, and we have to take the responsibility to prove safety ourselves. The public should not have to bear this burden or the cost of safety and environmental testing, especially since we never asked for the technology in the first place and do not benefit from it in any way.
Overview of some of the issues
- Currently, the FDA does not require growers, food manufacturers, or seed sellers to label their products as genetically engineered. It is a purely voluntary system for which, as you can imagine, there have been few takers. Agribusiness corporations know from public opinion polls that demand for genetically engineered food is low and that demand for labels is high. Labeling could translate into commercial failure for genetically engineered foods – precisely the reason that biotechnology companies and agribusiness giants are trying to keep labels off their genetically engineered food products.
- Because of horizontal gene transfer, organic fields can become contaminated by genetically engineered pollen from nearby fields. Such contamination can occur via the wind, from pollen stuck to bees, or even when neighbor farmers share equipment. Because of this contamination, even a farmer who uses organic seed and follows organic standards perfectly can still be unwittingly growing and selling genetically modified crops. Only expensive, sophisticated tests can reveal the contaminant DNA.
- Food producers often use soybeans or corn from many different sources and growers. In the United States, genetically engineered crops have not been segregated from normal crops, and therefore many food producers cannot tell consumers or grocery stores if their product contains genetically engineered ingredients.
As it stands now, dairy producers can label their products as “rBGH-free” but the FDA requires that they also print a qualifier, which weakens the “rBGH-free” label and continues to be a source of controversy. For example, the Ben & Jerry’s label reads:
“We oppose Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The family farmer’s who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH. The FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can now distinguish between milk fro rBGH treated and untreated cows.”
The Industry’s View
The multibillion-dollar, multinational leaders of the agribusiness industry attempt to defend their anticonsumer, antilabeling stance by claiming that the costs of labeling are too high. Sometimes industry supporters argue that consumers are just hysterical and ill informed. On the contrary, some of biotech’s biggest critics include molecular geneticists, cell biologists, lawyers, doctors, consumer groups, and farmers.
One of the ways in which the FDA and other regulatory agencies evade labeling is by applying the principle of substantial equivalence to genetically engineered food. The industry has declared that genetically engineered food is “substantially equivalent” to normal food.
The FDA has reluctantly permitted voluntary genfood labeling since 1992. A few companies have opted to label their foods—mostly organic growers or those in the health food industry—but the policy is ineffective for regulating genetically engineered food products because the vast amount of food sold in the United States does not have its genfood content labeled.
A voluntary food-labeling policy is a mild first step, permitting companies to provide information that their customers want. But a voluntary system creates an inequitable food-production system. One party, such as a seed seller, may label its seeds, but until there is an equitable system, information about genetically engineered seeds may never reach growers, processors, sellers, or consumers. Until all parties at ever stage of food production are informed, voluntary labels remain grossly inadequate.
Organic Food is the Best Choice
Eating organically grown foods is currently the best way to avoid genfood. This option is not foolproof, however: Even organic growers and backyard gardeners can be duped into buying genetically engineered seeds because many seed packages are not well labeled either. In fact, in Monsanto’s current New Leaf Product Guide and Seed directory, the term “genetically engineered” never appears. Farmers unfamiliar with genetic engineering may not even realize what they are buying, growing, or putting on supermarket shelves.