The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / People  / Advocates  / It’s Time to Demand GMO Labeling

It’s Time to Demand GMO Labeling

Naomi Starkman

It’s been two months since a broad-based coalition of 20 organizations filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The petition, which asks the FDA to give consumers the right to know what is in our food, was supported by more than 400 businesses and organizations dedicated to food safety and consumer rights.

Since that time, the list of partners to join the Just Label It campaign has grown to more than 450 organizations, and more than 400,000 individuals have commented on the FDA petition to label GMO foods, a huge amount of public support in such a short period of time. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman recently included the campaign in his list of powerful groups and individuals working to make a difference in the food movement. The campaign is clearly on to something and has become a lightening rod for everyone — from families to foodies — who cares about what they are eating.

Demand for transparency is building

A movement is growing, as informed consumers are asking for the right to know about the foods they’re purchasing and consuming. And they’re taking it to the streets: As the Just Label It campaign was launched, the GMO Right2Know March, a two-week, 300-mile trek from New York City to Washington, D.C., took place, during which marchers from across the world walked to the White House to demand labeling of GMO foods. Concerned Americans are also taking it to the ballot box. In California, there’s an effort to put a GMO labeling referendum before the voters in 2012. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) recently announced legislation that would require the labeling of all foods that contain or are produced with GMO material.

Why should we care about GMOs? Stonyfield Farm “CE-Yo” Gary Hirshberg and author and filmmaker Eric Schlosser explain in their recent opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“An unprecedented agricultural experiment is being conducted at America’s dinner tables. While none of the processed food we ate 20 years ago contained genetically engineered ingredients, now 75 percent of it does — even though the long-term human health and environmental impacts are unknown. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require labeling of genetically engineered foods….

“In 1992, the FDA ruled that genetically engineered foods didn’t need independent safety tests or labeling requirements before being introduced. But one of its own scientists disagreed, warning there were “profound differences” with genetically engineered foods. Genetically engineered seed manufacturers were allowed to sell their products without telling consumers. A 2006 survey found that 74 percent of Americans had no idea that genetically engineered foods were already being sold.”

Safety of foods uncertain

While nearly 90 percent of corn and cottonseed and 94 percent of soy grown in the U.S. are from GMO seeds, the safety of GMO crops for human consumption has not been adequately assured. Several studies from the National Academy of Sciences have affirmed that GMO crops have the potential to introduce new toxins or allergens into our food and environment.

Yet, unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of GMO crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for human health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals and limited testing for allergenicity. Some studies raise concerns that GMO foods may pose an allergen risk.

Scientists and consumers alike have many reasons for uncertainty about the long-term health and environmental consequences of genetically engineered foods. The scientific debate about the benefits and risks of these crops will continue for a long time. Meanwhile, an entire generation will have grown up consuming them.

While the U.S. lacks a labeling requirement for GMOs, other countries, including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Brazil and China, have adopted one. Polls show that consumers in this country demand transparency in the foods they buy and eat and overwhelmingly support labeling of GMO food. Ninety-five percent of consumers believe GMO foods should be labeled according to a poll conducted by Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, and 93 percent of the American public want the federal government to make that labelling mandatory.

GMO salmon on the way?

The question of labelling the first GMO animal is also underway. The FDA is currently deciding whether to deregulate GMO salmon and make it commercially available. Without a label to tell us differently, when eating GMO  salmon, the public will not know if what they are consuming has been genetically altered.

Until a label is mandated, the consumer’s best option to avoid GMO foods is to buy USDA certified organic as the organic standards prohibit the use of GMO ingredients. Look for Non-GMO Project Verified Non-GMO products, buy unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables and avoid packaged food, much of which contains GMO ingredients.

The campaign website,, gives consumers an easy, one-click method to notify the FDA of their support for the petition and a way to stay up-to-date on the initiative. It offers educational tools for getting informed about GMO foods and learning about the benefits of labeling foods. You can stay engaged through blogs and social media. The campaign also has a great video that conveys the point of the initiative. Without labeling, families are being kept in the dark.

This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor Naomi Starkman is a food policy consultant and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Civil, a Web site which promotes critical thought about sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Photo: Naomi Starkman. Credit: Bart Nagel