Environmental Outlook: Labels for Genetically Modified Foods

Environmental Outlook: Labels for Genetically Modified Foods

In 1992 the FDA ruled against requiring labels for genetically engineered foods. Join us for a panel discussion on the rationale for that decision and why some are urging the FDA to reconsider its stance.

In 1992 the FDA ruled against requiring labels for genetically engineered foods. Currently about 90% of the U.S. soybean crop and almost 75% of U.S. corn is grown from genetically modified seed, and it’s estimated that more than half the foods in grocery stores today contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered. Biotech companies and grocery manufacturers say genetically modified food is safe to eat and not different from conventional products in any measurable way. However, some believe consumers should be able to more easily avoid genetically modified foods if they so choose and are pushing for mandatory labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients. Join us for a discussion on the pros and cons of mandatory labels for genetically modified foods.


Thomas Redick

Global Environmental Ethics Counsel

Gardiner Harris

science reporter for The New York Times and author of the mystery novel "Hazard."

Gary Hirshberg

president, Stonyfield Farm, Inc

Program Highlights

The U.S. is the world's leader in genetically engineered crop production. Genetic modifications can boost herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects, and in some cases, add nutritional value. Twenty years ago, the FDA ruled that genetically modified food did not require labels, but some say this ruling hurts consumers who would prefer to avoid eating food with genetically modified ingredients.

The FDA's Rationale

The FDA's decision not to require labeling genetically modified foods 20 years ago basically comes from the mentality that food should be labeled according to what comes out of the process - not the process itself. FDA officials didn't believe that genetically modified food was any different from other existing forms of hybridization. According to Gardiner Harris, the U.S. gets more than 80 percent of its food from abroad. "The FDA inspects one in one million pounds of seafood coming into this country," Harris said. "They are entirely unable to police this global food supply, so it would be very difficult for them to police the process that goes into every single food coming into this country," he said.

Why Is Labeling Important?

Although the FDA couldn't possibly keep up with monitoring a significant portion of food imports, Gary Hirshberg believes that labeling is important for several
reasons. Consumers want to know, and have a right to know, the origins of their food and how it has been processed, Hirshberg said. Further, in most other parts of the world, and most of our trading partners, already require labeling. Hirshberg also believes that the common use of genetically engineered crops has resulted in some serious detriments to our food supply. More (and more potent) chemicals are necessary because the primary trait that has been developed in genetically modified corn is for herbicide tolerance, which allows farmers to use much more if it. In turn, weeds have become more resistant, which has led to farmers needing to use stronger herbicides known as defoliants, which Hirshberg said can be very toxic to humans.

Other Implications Of Particular Food Labeling

Requiring all genetically modified food to be labeled as such would inevitably drive up food costs, according to Thomas Redick. Companies would have to change the labels on their food, and some would voluntarily source non-genetically modified ingredients to put on their labels, which would drive the cost of non-genetically
modified crops up because of greater demand. "That's certainly the case in any nations that have implemented labeling," Redick said. But Gardiner Harris thinks that even with the potential negative outcomes for consumers that Redick said this kind of labeling might bring about, the public is very concerned about its food sources. "There is an enormous focus on food and concern about it," Harris said. "The industry has done an absolutely miserable job when it comes to GMO because the industry really has promised that genetically modifying foods will bring all sorts of benefits to consumers. When, in fact, nearly all of the genetic modification, up to this point, has been to the benefit of processors," Harris said.

Science On Both Sides

"I think in 2012, we ought to have the humility to recognize that we don't know it all, that as we manipulate the technologies, which ideally will have long-term benefits to feed the 9.2 billion people...consumers have gotta have the ability to choose whether to be a part of this system or not," Hirshberg said. Redick disagrees. "It's clear that we'll probably have a mix of sustainable organics, sustainable bio techs, sustainable nano whatever that's going to be in the future agricultural system. And I don't see any place for the government putting labels on any of that if the voluntary system is providing consumers what they want," Redick said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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