What does it mean to be an informed consumer?
On July 14th, 2016 the United States House of Representatives passed a bill mandating that all companies label food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The bill was ultimately put into place due to the demands of the public, who regardless of their stance on GM products, felt that they had the right to know what was going into their food.
In many developed countries, the cultivation of GM crops is prohibited. This is largely due to the inconsistencies in GM research. Since many studies are funded by pro-GMO organizations, people fear that the results may be skewed to serve their agendas.
To put it simple: people don’t know exactly what they are consuming and how it’ll affect their bodies.
Research in favor of genetic modification will argue for the benefits of “enhanced” products. In many cases, modification leads to better yields for farmers. Crops such as cassava and bananas are often nutritionally-enhanced.
So what’s the problem?
Some question whether or not a genetic modification has long-term ramifications. Activist organizations such as Greenpeace and the Non-GMO project have been fighting against corporations such as Monsanto for years. Their main concern: the potential harm these products may inflict on both our bodies and the environment.
Publicity of any subject can lead to an active discussion.
The labeling of genetically-modified products will allow consumers to make decisions about what they put into their shopping carts. In an ideal scenario, labeling could open avenues for those who are in less of a position to be health-conscious and don’t necessarily have access to the latest article or research study.
With our widespread obesity problem and heart disease being the leading cause of death in the United States, any information can be seen as a positive.
Some are less enthusiastic about the bill. Corporations in particular worry that the new regulation will generate bad publicity, arguing that simply sticking a label on a product isn’t enough. Their concern is that many will assume their products are bad based solely on word of mouth.
While many Americans are aware of the stigma surrounding GMOs, not as many are aware of the actual process of modifying foods. Pro-GMO companies will argue that changing the genetic structure of a crop doesn’t pose an immediate risk and, therefore, doesn’t warrant the bad reputation.
Does GMO labeling benefit corporations in any way?
In some states, the bill can be seen as a small victory for corporations, particularly in the state of Vermont. The bill itself leaves the method of labeling products up to the discretion of manufacturers. In Vermont, it overrides a stricter law that previously required written warnings. Companies are now able to operate under a more lenient federal law.
While a written warning is the most direct way to inform consumers that a product contains GMOs, it doesn’t give specific details.
Some have suggested using QR codes (a barcode that can be scanned using a smartphone) to send consumers to websites containing in-depth information about the GM ingredients in their products.
On the other end of the spectrum, people have suggested creating a universal symbol to represent products containing GMOs. This symbol could be placed discretely on packaging while still meeting the criteria.
What are the pros and cons to these alternatives?
A universal symbol may create an industrial standard but would more than likely be indistinguishable and meaningless to anyone who isn’t looking for it. QR codes open many opportunities to give consumers more specific details about the GMOs contained in a product but would only be accessible to those with smartphones, leaving those who can’t afford the technology without access.
Regardless of the approach, I believe that these labels are essential. It is a fundamental human right to know what goes into our bodies.
Labeling food isn’t a new concept. We list ingredients, point out potential allergens, and even specify whether or not products are fit for consumption by those in observance of religious practices. Genetically modified crops should be held to the same standard.
We need to ask ourselves: if GM products are as harmless as companies claim, why are they trying so hard to hide them?