The Weird Science of GMO Labeling
Just label it? The experts say it's not that simple.
Few subjects have proved to be as polarizing as the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. What began in the 1940s as an effort by U.S. scientists and policymakers to address the global food supply has evolved into a contentious debate about the safety and methodology of moving selective plant breeding from the fields to the laboratory. Recently, the debate has found a new battleground, the food label.
This past March, House Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, introduced H.R. 1599: Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would allow companies to voluntarily label foods as containing GMOs or GMO-free. Opponents argue that the bill undermines current efforts to mandate GMO labeling at the state level.
Earlier this year, the results of a Pew Research study in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) showed that 89 percent of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe, in comparison with 37 percent of the general public.
“If you look at what’s published in the scientific literature, almost all the evidence says that the crops that are transgenic that are on the market now are perfectly safe,” says Dr. Michael Shintaku, plant pathologist and faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He expresses frustration that the media has presented the issue to the public as having two sides without revealing how much scientific evidence supports the use of genetically modified crops. “They don’t really give you enough information to make what I think is an educated decision.”
Dr. Ellen Messer, a food and nutrition anthropologist with faculty affiliations at Tufts and Boston University, has spent years researching the potential of GMOs. “Some of the original cutting-edge technologies that allowed the adoption to go forward were actually joint projects of the USDA experimental research stations and Monsanto,” says Messer. “The U.S. wanted to lead the possible applications and licensing of these technologies.”
She feels the GMO issue has been oversimplified. “You can’t just say, ‘are they good or bad?’ What you want to ask is: what crops are transformed by what technologies to introduce what genes which carry what characteristics that will be used by which populations to what advantage? You really have to look at the specifics and the environment into which they’re being introduced, and who is developing particular products for what ends.”
“The poles are pretty extreme, and neither is exactly right,” agrees Gary Adamkiewicz, Assistant Professor in the Environmental Health Department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He contends that most of the problem stems from press coverage based on knee-jerk reactions instead of a healthy dialogue. “The way I look at it is that genetic modification is a technology, and like most technology, it can be used appropriately or not. It’s up to us to judge every case on its own.”
There is also the issue of how products should be labeled. Should “Non-GMO” be printed on the front of a bag of corn chips? Should it appear in the list of ingredients on the back? Will restaurant menus be updated to inform diners which dishes are non-GMO? Do consumers have enough information about GMOs to make an educated decision about whether or not to avoid them?
The first genetically engineered food to hit the market was the The Flavr Savr canned tomato. A U.S. product developed to ripen off the vine, it was not a market success. A similar tomato, developed by a European firm, was marketed in tomato paste sold in the UK in the mid-1990s. The cans were labeled ‘Contains GMOs’. “Nobody got sick,” says Messer, “but they had to take them off [shelves] when there was a swift anti-GMO reaction several years later.”
Under current regulation, consumers looking to avoid GMOs do have some options. Food that is ‘Certified Organic’ by the FDA cannot include GMOs and products sporting the ‘Non-GMO Verified’ label have been certified through a network of private agencies to be GMO-free.
Dr. Christina Roberto, Assistant Professor of Social & Behavioral Sciences and Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and principal investigator of the Psychology of Eating and Consumer Health (PEACH) lab, conducts research on how food labeling affects both consumers and the industry. “Certainly labeling is a good way to challenge false beliefs consumers have,” she says, but it can also be misleading. Just because a bag of gummy bears is labeled organic doesn’t necessarily mean eating them is good for your health. “For any labeling system that you use, there’s going to need to be a consumer education system to go along with it.”
In Germany, scientists recently lobbied for labeling to expose how widespread GMOs are in the current food landscape. “It’s going to be interesting to see how people react to all of the cheese made with microbial rennet that is a genetically modified organism,” Messer says. “People have been eating that now for years.”
“It doesn’t matter how much scientific information you have," says Messer. “If people are convinced that GMOs are unhealthy, they’re not going to be otherwise convinced by the evidence.” Not that Messer is convinced that all GMOs, in all instances, will be safe. “There is a need to exercise constant vigilance for new threats to human health and the environment.”
“There is a psychology to this,” says Roberto. “How much information should you give people, and what is their ability to retain it and take it in and actually do something with it? Labeling can impact people’s perceptions of food, their behavior, and new research shows it can possibly connect to their physiology. Consumers are already inundated with lots of different messages, so the goal is to communicate useful information in an uncomplicated manner based on what they need. In some ways, it’s ‘just a label,’ but it can really influence the public.”