The horse has bolted on genetic modification. It’s out of the barn. Heck, it’s off the ranch, and crops from GM seeds account for 94% of all soy, over 90% of sugar beet and canola, and 88% of corn now grown in the United States. But the GMO labeling issue should serve as a wake-up call to industry, encouraging it to engage in respectful debate with consumers, rather than facing off against a resentful public.
In light of potential labeling, food manufacturers using ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are likely to be concerned about consumer perception. They are right to be.
As spokesperson for the No on 37 campaign Kathy Fairbanks told this publication, “Any time you put a label on anything, it’s seen as a warning.”
However, if you’re a consumer who, for whatever reason, would like to know which foods on the market contain GMOs, Prop 37 won’t help you very much either.
Intention is everything
If GMO labeling is enacted in California, companies making foods without the GMO label will only have to show that their intention was to exclude genetically modified material, and prove their suppliers’ intention. There are no thresholds for accidental GMO content, there’s no testing required – and until 2019 up to 5% of a food product could be made with known GMO ingredients as well.
Even the media director for the California Right to Know campaign Stacy Malkan says that basing GMO labeling requirements on intention is important because “unfortunately contamination is a huge problem.”
If you want to avoid GMOs completely, start by moving another country – and then become a vegan.
Under Prop 37, meat and milk from animals that have been raised on GM feed are exempt from labeling, as long as the animals themselves have been bred naturally (as is also the case in Europe).
What about organic?
Think organic foods are GMO-free? Think again. There are no thresholds for the amount of genetically modified material that can be accidentally present in organic food either – as long as foods are produced using organic methods. So despite measures like creating buffer zones around organic farms, it is inevitable that some GM material winds up in organic fields, which is why many organic producers are opting into the Non-GMO Project Verification program, which fastidiously tests for GMOs at key points in the supply chain – although it doesn’t test finished products.
This seems like an extreme situation to me, but with or without GMO labeling, the Non-GMO Project’s label may be the only one that gives consumers information about content, rather than intent.
One of the options for food manufacturers under Prop 37 would be to include the statement “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering”. If companies are concerned that their product may potentially contain GMOs, even if they are making efforts to avoid them, they could opt to include this statement on-pack.
This would result in consumers having just as much knowledge about the GMO content of their foods as they do now – which is to say they should assume it’s in everything. And such labels would provide about as much information about GMOs as Prop 65 warnings provide about cancer risk.
It may be too late for a balanced discussion on GMOs, but the food industry needs to take the lead in communicating with consumers, on their own terms, about how new technologies can benefit individuals rather than – and as well as – corporations. If it doesn’t, the sector may become the only part of the economy in which all advancements are shunned – and slapped with quasi warning labels.