A California initiative requiring the labeling of genetically modified food will be on the November 6 ballot, state officials announced last week. The initiative requires companies to label food that has been made from genetically modified plants or animals and prohibits them from advertising of such food as “natural.” California Right to Know, the organization fueling the initiative, submitted 971,126 signatures to get the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act on the ballot. According to the organization, the initiative will increase consumer awareness “because consumers have the right to know what’s in our food.”
This year, 20 other states have unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation about labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), so the California initiative would be the first of its kind in the United States. Other countries, including Japan, Australia, China and those in the European Union, already mandate that genetically modified food has to be labeled.
Despite difficulty in passing legislation, polls show that people overwhelmingly support GMO labeling. A 2012 study by the Mellman Group found that 91 percent of voters nationwide want the FDA to require that “foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled to indicate that.” A similar Zogby report found that “US adults are divided on whether genetically modified foods are safe, but solid majorities are both less likely to buy such foods, and want them clearly labeled.”
And if California’s labeling initiative passes, as Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott explains, the labeling initiative would reverberate nationally throughout the food industry. Product differentiation is costly, and food processors outside of California are likely to apply whatever regulations the state imposes. “If massive food processors like Kraft and Unilever are forced to label essentially all of their products just for the California market, it likely won’t be long before they’re pushing for national labeling—or simply just labeling everything for the national market.”
But opposition to the initiatives has also been powerful. As the New York Times pointed out, the battle over GMO labeling puts consumer groups and organic farmers, who want mandatory labeling, up against conventional farmers, food brands like Kraft, and agricultural biotechnology companies like Monsanto. It has also added “fuel to a long-simmering debate over the merits of genetically engineered crops, which many scientists and farmers believe could be useful in meeting the world’s rapidly expanding food needs.”
Groups that oppose labeling genetically modified food, who suggest these crops could help meet the world’s growing food demands, say GMOs do not pose a health risk and could be beneficial:
The F.D.A. has said that labeling is generally not necessary because the genetic modification does not materially change the food.
Farmers, food and biotech companies and scientists say that labels might lead consumers to reject genetically modified food — and the technology that created it — without understanding its environmental and economic benefits. A national science advisory organization termed those benefits ‘substantial,’ noting that existing biotech crops have for years let farmers spray fewer or less harmful chemicals, though the emergence of resistant weeds and insects threatens to blunt that effect. [...]
Rather than label food with what consumers might regard as a skull and crossbones, the companies say food producers may ultimately switch to ingredients that are not genetically modified, as they did in Europe.
Regardless, those in favor of the labeling mandate argue that food manufacturers have an obligation to label food that has been genetically modified. For their part, in 2011 the Organic Farming Research Foundation released a report that clearly demonstrated the various economic benefits of the organic food industry, including huge potential economic benefits, offering an alternative to the genetically modified food industry.