Walking down a grocery store aisle in the U.K. or Japan, you’ll see labels on anything made with genetically engineered ingredients, from tortilla chips to tofu. Today, 64 countries have laws requiring GMO labeling. Next year, Vermont plans to become the first U.S. state with a similar law. But Congress is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that prevents states from requiring GMO labels (with the Orwellian–and totally false name The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act), despite the fact that nine in ten Americans say they want to know if they’re eating genetically engineered food.
But is a GMO label, on its own, enough for consumers to really understand what they’re buying? Just two years ago, more than half of Americans said they knew little or nothing about GMO food; 25% said they’d never heard of it.
For those who know about the GM controversy, the first crop to come to mind might be something like Monsanto’s Roundup-ready corn, which is engineered to survive massive doses of the same company’s weed killer (synergy!) made from a chemical called glyphosate. Since the new seeds were introduced in the late 1990s–and quickly became wildly used–herbicide use has increased by over half a billion pounds.
The more farmers use the herbicide, the more that so-called superweeds learn to outsmart it– growing resistant and forcing farmers to keep upping the dose of the chemical. That poses concerns about how much of the herbicide is getting into the environment and onto farmworkers. Earlier this year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed past studies and decided that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, based on limited evidence of links to lymphoma in humans and more evidence of cancer in animal studies.
“We’re putting more and more of these herbicides out into the environment,” says Mae Wu, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a direct problem for the people who live closest to them, but these herbicides get into the water, and can contaminate other parts of the environment.” Glyphosate has had unintended effects on ecosystems, like obliterating the plants that monarch butterflies rely on for survival.
But that doesn’t actually mean the new crops are automatically worse than what was grown before. “The reason farmers have embraced Roundup-ready crops and glyphosate is because they’ve been able to shift from more toxic herbicides,” says Pamela Ronald, director of the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis. “It’s actually less toxic than some organic sprays that organic farmers use to control pests and weeds. Probably we’d all prefer that we didn’t have to spray anything. But most farmers spray herbicides, and until glyphosate came around, they sprayed more toxic herbicides.”
Around 90% of the soybeans in the U.S., like corn, are now genetically modified. But when consumers deliberately seek out GMO-free soy, they might actually end up with something that’s grown with what Ronald says are “older and more toxic herbicides and pesticides.”
Other genetic modifications, like Bt corn, have helped cut pesticide use by a factor of 10. “A lot of times people group together herbicides and insecticides,” she says. “Actually, it’s the insecticides that are often very toxic, and that’s where Bt crops have been very important for massively reducing insecticide usage.”
Then there’s the case of the papaya, which was genetically engineered 20 years ago to resist a virus that was threatening to destroy the papaya industry in Hawaii. A small snippet of the virus DNA is inserted into the plant; it works a little like a vaccination, so the papaya can survive even if it’s infected.
Around 60% of Americans believe that GMO food is unsafe to eat. But most scientists disagree. “Every major scientific organization around the world that has looked at the issue has concluded that the crops currently on the market are safe to eat,” says Ronald. “These are the same organizations that accept the global consensus on climate change. I find that fact helps people realize that they’re accepting some science while rejecting other science. I think it helps them understand that it’s more kind of a tribal opinion than science.”
Still, GMO opponents argue that there haven’t been enough independent, long-term studies. And regulation is lax: Before a new genetically engineered crop goes to market, any approval from the FDA is strictly voluntary. “We need to strengthen oversight,” says Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group. “The pre-market assessment needs to shift from sole reliance on industry data to one where the Food and Drug Administration is independently testing.”
Others say that the industry tests that exist in lieu of FDA approval haven’t been rigorous enough. “Some of these are short term studies with very low amounts of material, like for two weeks or four weeks,” says David Schubert, head of the cellular neurobiology laboratory for the Salk Institute. “That’s not serious toxicology.”
With labeling, it would be possible to track any potential effects of genetically engineered crops–or their associated pesticides and herbicides–over time. “If there were transparency in labeling we’d be able to do the kind of post-approval surveillance that the FDA relies on after it has moved a drug through approval,” says Robert Lawrence, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “There’s no way we would be able to have that kind of ongoing surveillance without enough transparency that epidemiologists can collect data for the pattern recognition they rely on for detecting new health patterns.”
The industry has argued that a basic label would be expensive–potentially driving up the cost of groceries by as much as $500 a year, based on the idea that consumers would start asking for more non-GMO alternatives. (Notably, they made the same argument in the 1980s against labeling like calories and fat, but their dire predictions–not so surprisingly–did not come to pass).
They also argue that it would be misleading, causing consumers to automatically conclude that a product with GMOs is worse than one without. “Usually you label if something’s harmful, and not if it’s less harmful,” Ronald says.
Other experts disagree. “The fundamental truth is that we don’t label dangerous foods in America,” says O’Neil. “If foods are ever proven dangerous, they’re taken off the market. And that’s one reason why every time there’s an E. coli outbreak, you see companies scrambling to recall products, not labeling them as ‘May contain E. coli.'”
The FDA requires labeling for thousands of different food ingredients, additives, and processes–everything from nutritional content to something like whether a juice was made from concentrate.
“That’s not because juice from concentrate is more or less harmful than juice that’s not from concentrate,” O’Neil says. “But it’s really fundamentally about preventing consumer confusion in the marketplace.”
That is where the argument for labeling falls apart a little–the morass of GMO science is confusing enough that the label alone can’t answer every question. A simple “GMO” marking won’t help consumers weigh all of the differences between genetically modified corn and conventional corn–like which herbicides might have been used.
Ronald has a different suggestion. “What I have advocated, and what I think many people are advocating, is have some kind of bar code system, where you could see what was sprayed on the crops, where it was grown, how it was developed, and you would do it for everything,” says Ronald. “I think that would be really great.”