Growing concern fuels movement to label genetically modified foods
The most closely watched effort to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops is a proposed ballot initiative in California that cleared a crucial hurdle this month, setting the stage for a probable November vote.
The New York Times
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — On a morning at the Big Y grocery in Great Barrington, Cynthia LaPier parked her cart in the cereal aisle. With a quick check of the ingredients, she plastered several boxes with hand-designed stickers from a roll in her purse. "Warning," they read. "May Contain GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)."
For more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the U.S. — cereals, snack foods, salad dressings — have contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory. Regulators and many scientists say these pose no danger. But as Americans ask more questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.
Labeling bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states in the past year, and an appeal to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last fall to mandate labels nationally drew more than a million signatures. There is an iPhone app: ShopNoGMO.
The most closely watched labeling effort is a proposed ballot initiative in California that cleared a crucial hurdle this month, setting the stage for a probable November vote.
Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the showdown. It pits consumer groups and the organic-food industry, both of which support mandatory labeling, against more conventional farmers, agricultural biotechnology companies such as Monsanto and many of the nation's best-known food brands such as Kellogg's and Kraft.
The heightened stakes have added fuel to a long-simmering debate over the merits of genetically engineered crops, which many scientists and farmers say could be useful in meeting the world's expanding food needs.
Supporters of labeling argue that consumers have a right to know when food has been modified with genes from another species, which they say is different from the selective breeding used in nearly all foods.
Almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. contain DNA transferred from bacteria. The foreign gene makes the soybeans resistant to a herbicide used in weed control, and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide.
"It just makes me nervous when you take genetic matter from something else that wouldn't have been done in nature and put it into food," said LaPier, 44, a mental-health counselor whose guerrilla labeling was inspired by the group Label It Yourself.
The FDA has maintained that labeling is not necessary because the genetic modification does not materially change the food.
Farmers, food and biotech companies and many scientists say labels might lead consumers to reject genetically modified food — and the technology that created it — without understanding its benefits.
A national science-advisory organization recently termed those benefits "substantial," noting that biotech crops have for years let farmers spray fewer or less harmful chemicals, though the emergence of resistant weeds and insects threatens to blunt that effect.
Some food experts argue that manufacturers have an obligation to label. Consumers "have a right to take genetic modification into consideration," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "And if the companies think consumer objections are stupid and irrational, they should explain the benefits of their products."
Until now, Americans have made little fuss about the handful of genetically modified crops on the market compared with Europeans, who require that such foods be labeled.
The current push for labeling in this country stems, in part, from a broadening of the genetically modified menu to include herbicide-resistant alfalfa and the possible approval this year of a fast-growing salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered animal in the food supply.
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farms, the organic-yogurt company, has raised more than $1 million for the Just Label It campaign to influence the FDA after fighting the approval of engineered alfalfa, arguing that cross-pollination would contaminate organic crops fed to cows.
"This is an issue of transparency, truth and trust in the food system," Hirshberg said.
Biotechnology companies say the California labeling initiative is an effort by organic-food growers to drive genetically modified foods off the market.
"These folks are trying to use politics to do what they can't accomplish at the supermarket, which is increase market share," said Cathleen Enright, an executive vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents Monsanto and DuPont.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food brands, declined to comment on what members would do if the California measure passes. But Rick Tolman, chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association, said after meeting with food executives this month that he had the "strong impression" they would rather reformulate their ingredients — as they have done in Europe — than label their products genetically engineered. "
When asked if they want genetically engineered foods to be labeled, about 9 in 10 Americans said that they did, according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll.
So far, the FDA has said only that it is studying the labeling petition; none of the state-level labeling bills proposed over the past year have passed.