Across America a political battle is raging over proposed state laws mandating the labeling of genetically modified food. Although the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that GMO foods are safe, some 60 percent of Americans still have concerns. As a society we need to be careful in rejecting the views of the overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide; otherwise the naysayers will always find reasons to slow down the road to progress, especially when the future requires a significant increase in sustainable food production to meet a rapidly growing population. Nonetheless it is the consumer’s right to know what they eat and make decisions based on accurate information. The question is how to provide this sensibly. What is not needed is a state-by-state solution to this problem. What is needed is a uniform national solution that effectively ensures consumer trust in the food system while not heaping unrealistic costs on the food and agriculture sector.

To date, upwards of 70 different labeling bills and ballot initiatives have been introduced in 30 states across the United States. Since 2012, voters have rejected referendums, sometimes very narrowly, in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Vermont remains the only state to unilaterally pass a mandatory GMO labeling law, which will be fully implemented by July 2016.


Consumers have the right to know that a label is more than just a sticker on a box. A national GMO-free standard provides a trustworthy mechanism for consumers to make choices without imposing a vast array of state-by-state regulatory burdens on farmers and food producers. Such a standard would be a voluntary certification program for food producers similar to the widely adopted USDA organic food-labeling model. Accommodating each state’s varied label requirements will mean a huge degree of confusion and costs as food will be labeled differently state to state. According to a 2014 study by economists at Cornell University, the average American family could see their grocery costs rise by $500 per year as a direct result of a patchwork of GMO labeling mandates. Additionally, since there is no evidence of health and safety implications for food that contains GMOs, a lack of standard labeling will confuse people who now see labels as providing objective information on health and nutrition.

More than 2,000 studies show a consensus among leading global scientific and health organizations – from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization – that GMO ingredients are safe for human consumption and can have a positive environmental impact. For agriculture, it can mean an effective way to produce crops with less water, less pesticides and other chemicals and more sustainable farming. That being said, consumer trust in GMO ingredients is still uncertain in many quarters. The food and agriculture industry needs to do a much better job explaining these issues thoughtfully. To some degree the GMO issue has become an ideological argument, not a substantive debate. I believe GMO food is safe to eat, but out of concern for those who strongly disagree, we ought to have a uniform federal standard of GMO labeling to provide consumers who wish to buy GMO free foods with trustworthy and uniform information.

Consumers have a right to an abundant, affordable, and nutritious supply of food, the peace of mind that the food is safe, and an understanding of how it gets from the farm to their table. USDA’s efforts to develop a voluntary certification and labeling regime for foods that do not contain GMOs will be extremely helpful. Congress as well can enact legislation that creates a uniform national solution, preferably with a voluntary certification process. Both these regulatory and legislative actions can build consumer trust in our nation’s food supply and protects farmers’ need to innovate and produce food safely and sustainably.

Glickman served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama calls on governments to 'do their part' in increasing global vaccine supply China's emissions now eclipse the developed world — preventing climate protection Trump endorses Glenn Youngkin in Virginia governors race MORE from 1995 to 2001. He is currently executive director of the Congressional program at the Aspen Institute.