The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / People  / Advocates  / Will the GMOs Please Step Forward?

Will the GMOs Please Step Forward?

Julie Campbell

What does the term genetically modified organism (GMO) conjure? Creepy and unnatural Frankenfoods? Proof that technology is already solving world hunger? Nothing at all?

A survey conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology revealed that, in 2006, three-quarters of American adults believed they had never eaten food made with GMOs. In truth, a whopping 89 percent of soybeans and 61 percent of corn sold in U.S. supermarkets come from genetically modified crops, mostly in the form of ingredients in processed foods. Even if you don’t snack on edamame or popcorn, derivatives of corn and soy are in almost every processed food: cereal, sweetened yogurt, crackers and much more. Plenty of livestock animals were already eating GM corn, and more will be soon: GM alfalfa, which is used to make hay for cows, was legalized in the United States in January.

So why don’t the majority of American consumers believe their food is genetically modified? They were never told. Food companies are not required by the FDA to label GMO produce, meats or processed food ingredients as such.

The push to require such labeling has tended to come from those who oppose genetically modified foods and Ag companies resist labeling, fearing a drop in sales. But it’s time for the FDA to require labeling of GMOs. Combining more consumer knowledge of GMOs with more transparent labeling will allow Americans to become familiar with what they’re already eating, and to make fully informed food purchases. It also may be better for agribusiness in the long run.

GMO labeling, in truth, may attract as many buyers as it repels. For example, a shopper may choose a GMO product that delivers more vitamins or avoid one they know has negative environmental impacts. For the free market system to determine the fate of specific GMO products in the U.S., they shouldn’t be hidden from customers, but should be given a fair chance to succeed or fail.

Mandatory labeling in other nations, including Japan, China, Australia and those of the European Union, has not spelled the death of GMOs. But to those who argue that including “contains GMOs” or “GMO-free” seems unnecessary on a label, recall that people felt the same when nutrition labels, now widely considered vital to making good food choices, were first required.

At the moment, the only way to be an informed eater is to be proactive by examining websites on biotech issues. Learning more about the pros and cons of GMOs at websites such as Sustainable Table or the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization opens up the possibility of holding opinions beyond the two extremes — but still leaves consumers wondering exactly what is where on the grocery shelves. For now, the only way to avoid GMOs altogether is to choose only organic foods because the USDA does not allow foods with GM ingredients to be labeled as organic.

Appropriately labeling GMOs is only one step of many needed in the long process of assuring Americans that GM crops can be safe and used properly. As long as agriculture and food processing companies appear to want to keep GM crops and ingredients a secret, they will never earn consumers’ trust. Americans know that while technology is far from being a panacea, it has benefited us in countless ways we never could have predicted beforehand, and biotechnology has the potential to do the same. Only by giving GMOs an honest introduction to the market can they ever reach their full potential.

Julie Campbell, a senior at Stanford University, will graduate in June with a degree in human biology, within which she is concentrating in sustainable land use.