GMO Labeling – Business Move vs. Ethical Reasons

Genetically modified (GM) foods have been available in US grocery stores since 1994 when the FDA approved the “Flavr Savr” tomato. Today, genetically engineered crops account for 93% of the corn and 95% of the soybeans the US produces.1 Although genetically modified food crops are commonplace, many people are concerned about their potential health and environmental effects, calling for mandatory GMO labeling.
What are GMOs?
The term genetically modified organisms (GMOs) refers to living organisms, mainly food crops, produced through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering involves modifying an organism’s DNA to change its physical attributes in a way that is impossible through conventional cross-breeding.
GM plants typically contain genes from different species to give them favorable characteristics that may protect them from extreme weather, pests, and diseases or increase their nutritional content. Genetic engineering is a form of agricultural biotechnology which aims to make commercial farming easier and less cost-intensive while protecting food security.
GM Food Regulations in the US
The federal government implemented the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology in 1986. This regulatory policy aims to ensure the safety of biotechnology research and products and assigns regulation responsibilities to the FDA, USDA, and EPA.
The FDA ensures that all GMO ingredients meet the same safety standards as non-GMO foods, while the USDA ensures that GMO crops are not harmful to other plants. The EPA regulates the safety of the plant-incorporated protectants added to GMO crops to make them more resistant to pest attacks.
Additionally, congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in July 2016. The legislation defines bioengineered foods as those containing lab-modified genetic material not found in nature and cannot be created through conventional breeding. According to the new law, food manufacturers must disclose the presence of bioengineered ingredients in their products using a symbol, text, or digital link from January 1, 2022.
The Argument for Mandatory GMO Labeling
Various consumer polls2 over the last ten years consistently found that over 90% wanted genetically modified foods to be labeled accordingly. This call for mandatory GMO labeling stems from the belief that people have the right to know what’s in their food. Disclosing GMOs in packaged foods gives consumers more autonomy, allowing them to choose whether they want to buy a product based on its ingredients.
Although the World Health Organization says all commercially available GM foods have passed strict safety tests3 and pose no risk to human health, many still prefer not to eat them. Many anti-GMO groups’ biggest concerns are potential allergen and cancer risks.
The Argument Against Mandatory GMO Labeling
Despite the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe, they have negative connotations which could turn consumers toward foods without the “Bioengineered” label. This shift in consumer behavior may have a ripple effect, causing food manufacturers to reformulate their products and raise prices. The new labeling law may boost sales of organic and non-GMO foods, threatening brands that produce affordable, fortified products which often support low-income households.
Genetic engineering in the food industry has become a controversial topic recently due to polarized opinions and a lack of access to unbiased information. Although the scientific benefits of growing bioengineered crops far outweigh the risks, the non-disclosure of such ingredients in food feeds consumer skepticism. Although the new labeling laws pose significant economic threats, they may also help normalise the consumption of bioengineered products and help consumers regain control of their shopping choices.
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