Once again, the debate over labeling foods commonly called “GMO” has reached a fevered pitch. Some states continue to attempt to pass (or have already passed) local labeling laws. At the Federal level legislation has been introduced that would label one GMO product – salmon - but not others, while a new legislative attempt to prohibit any labeling of GMOs until and unless the Federal government agrees to a uniform, nationwide labeling law has failed.
Confusing? You bet.
Much of the confusion stems from a widespread and basic misunderstanding of both the historic purpose of food labels and of modern GMO technology.
Federal food labels have a clear and focused purpose: to provide nutritional and safety information to consumers. This includes things that can be measured – calories, fats, vitamins, mineral content, potential allergens – and methods of preparation that can impact these measurable ingredients (FDA calls this “material composition”).
A second role of government in labeling is to ensure truth in advertising. Labels identifying products as Organic, Kosher, or Halal, fall into the second category: industry developed, but overseen by government agencies to ensure truthfulness and accuracy.
So how would a GMO label fit in this regulatory scheme?
First and foremost, "GMO" is not an ingredient. "It" is not in your food. It is a process by which some hybrids are developed, for the same reasons traditional crops or animals are cross-bred: to improve a desired quality, be it taste, nutrition, resistance to disease or improved economics of growth. But it is more exact, faster and more flexible. So if GMOs are labeled by government statute, several problems are created.
First, it gives us, the consumer, the false idea that we have added knowledge about an ingredient. We wouldn’t. If indeed there were a material change in any ingredient, or an ingredient added, existing law already requires it to be noted and labeled.
A second problem is that since government food labels are designed to provide consumer safety information, a mandated GMO label will almost certainly be interpreted as a safety warning by many consumers. And to be clear, that is the motive of anti-GMO groups and some legislators--- groups with competing economic interests, including fishing groups afraid that fast-growing salmon will diminish their market share, organic farming organizations, groups with ideologies that oppose or are frightened by the intrusion of modern science into their (erroneous) vision of agriculture as “natural” and “traditional”.
But the third problem - an outgrowth of broadening the purpose of labeling beyond the provision of safety and nutrition information - is the most detrimental. It distorts the purpose and corrodes the value of mandated labeling. Once we label to satisfy a taste, value or economic demand, who among us will know whether the mandated label tells us what we need to know about nutrition and safety or is there to protect an economic interest?
The marketplace is the appropriate venue in which to provide consumers with information they desire while ensuring that government mandated labeling remains focused on food safety and nutrition. It is that the food industry that needs to create a clear uniform label that informs consumers whether their food product has been developed with the aid of modern cross-breeding tools, done in cooperation with and oversight by US agencies that ensure truth in advertising. In this case, the USDA. That is what the USDA organic label was designed to do and it is a good model to follow.
There are some who disagree with the proposition that agriculture biotechnology offers real benefits to people and the planet. As a long time participant in the development of such products, I believe fully in the positive opportunities they offer, but I also understand that there are consumers concerned about the process.
Universal labeling by industry will lead to a broader understanding and acceptance of how science and nature mutually support a better and safer food supply. Fears unsupported by facts will erode over time resulting in a crucial growth of public support and trust.
It is time to end America’s long food fight over labeling genetically modified foods. This battle has played out at local, state and federal levels, costing much and benefiting no one.
Let the market rule.
Elliot Entis is the founder of Aqua Bounty Technologies Inc.