The subject of genetically modified (GM) food is a notoriously controversial one for all the wrong reasons. Thanks to a campaign of misinformation by some parties, and a lack of scientific understanding of GM technology among the general public, it has sometimes provoked outrage across both Europe and the US.
Addressing the topic head on, this month Vermont became the first state in the US to enact a law requiring all GM food to be labelled as such. Worrying that different states would take on very different laws, the Senate has now stepped into the fray, and just last week voted 63 to 30 to approve a bill that would supersede Vermont’s law with a nationwide equivalent. The so-called “Mandatory Labeling Bill” describes this action as the first step in creating a national bioengineered food disclosure standard.
Companies now have a choice. Either they have to put a text statement or a symbol on their food packaging denoting that it contains GM ingredients, or they can include a digital QR code that customers would have to scan with a smartphone to learn about the GM ingredients in their product. Smaller companies can simply include a URL on the package to link to more information.
Any product that contains GM material must be labelled (most cheese, corn and soy in the US, for example), but interestingly, any product made from GM ingredients but that no longer contain the original GM DNA after they have been processed (including many oils and sweeteners) are exempt from labeling.
The bill now needs approval from the House, where Republicans have already voted to block Vermont’s law in favor of a voluntary labeling law. Curiously, many Republicans are often known for their misalignment with the views of scientists, particularly when it comes to “big issues” – climate change, for example. However, in this case, many scientists would agree that labeling foods as containing GM ingredients is somewhat ludicrous.
Indeed, more than 100 Nobel laureates just signed a letter to Greenpeace – a fervent opponent of GM technology – pleading with them to look more carefully at the science, which is by and large in favor of GM processes. It’s likely that Republicans are angry about the thought of mandatory labeling because they have never traditionally been a fan of governmental intervention.
It's passed one hurdle. Now it has to be approved by the House. eurobanks/Shutterstock
One survey found that 82 percent of the American public would support mandatory labeling. However, the same survey also found that 80 percent also support the idea of mandatory labeling of food containing DNA. This clearly highlights the general public’s lack of scientific understanding when it comes to food.
The point of many opponents of mandatory GM labeling, then, is that it will only help to reinforce the bizarre and completely unfounded notion of GM crops being “Frankenfoods,” where the public are guinea pigs at the whim of immoral scientists. As 75 percent of processed food in the US contains GM ingredients, mandatory nationwide labeling will cause a proverbial pandemonium.
The fact is, most of the food you eat has been genetically altered in some way. Whether it’s been through conventional breeding methods or GM methods is as relevant as knowing whether your iPhone has been assembled by humans or robots.
So at worst, these labels will be a massive boost to those who seek to demonize GM crops, which have greatly benefitted the world. At best, they will inform consumers about the fascinating science behind GM techniques.
Only time will tell which version of events will come to pass, assuming the House passes the bill in the first place.
See this? This isn't what GM techniques involve, at all. wellphoto/Shutterstock