Current Policy Debate on GMO Labelling

By Matthew Wrobel, Policy Analyst

With the divisiveness of the American people skyrocketing to levels never seen before, finding an area of cooperation is hard to come across nowadays. That is, until you look at the public perception of the labeling of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in the American diet. A recent poll of likely 2016 voters by The Mellman Group, Inc. indicated the 89% of people believed that the labeling of GMOs must be mandatory on any product that qualifies. Just 6% of Americans believed it should not be a requirement and the other 5% had no opinion. But with this call for action resounding throughout the electorate, lawmakers find themselves at odds as Congressional conservatives do not believe there is enough scientific evidence to justify the potential economic repercussions that would come with a mandatory labeling law. This rift between the majority of citizens and the majority in Congress raises the question if the American people are truly misinformed, or if the GOP again finds themselves on the wrong side of science.

Since the 1980’s, scientists have been altering the genetic makeup of organisms (i.e. plants, animals, and microorganisms) to create some perceived advantage for either the producer or consumer of these foods. This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers and have concentrated on innovations that bring direct benefit to farmers (and the food industry generally). Beginning in the early 2000s, however, the altering and modifying of the genetic makeup of America’s food has been called into question by the masses. This naturally led to partisan sentiments and opposing views in the American political arena—liberals boasting our “right to know” and Republicans sticking to their economic conservatism, believing the labeling of such GMOs would deter consumers and negatively impact the already downward spiraling economy. But with the debate still hot after the recent passing of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act in the House, which would prohibit the states from establishing mandatory GMO labeling law and leave the regulating of any bioengineered food up to the FDA, one must ask—what exactly does the science say about GMOs? Well, one can’t be too sure.

The relatively short existence of GMOs in the American has left scientists very little evidence to determine the potential risks and benefits of consumption of these products. In 2012, the American Medical Association released a statement saying, “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education”. More recent independent studies, however, from organizations such as American Academy of Environmental Medicine claim, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The World Health Organization takes a more moderate stance on the matter saying,

“Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.

GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous application of safety assessments based on the Codex Alimentarius principles and, where appropriate, adequate post market monitoring, should form the basis for ensuring the safety of GM foods”.

Truth be told, we as a society have no idea about the long term effects of GMOs on people—the jury is still out. With no true, solid evidence to support either side of the argument, it’s hard to justify Congress being in any position of certain knowledge to draft bills prohibiting or mandating the labeling of GMOs. It has become clear that the issue of bioengineered food in the American diet has become politicized, with the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act becoming nothing more of the brainchild of lobbyists and other interest groups looking to maintain the stability of the food industry—a move that might not be the worst idea considering the uncertainty of the matter and the instability of the markets. The generalizing of GMOs as all being either beneficial or harmful is not only a mistake, but an injustice to the scientific community in their efforts for the truth. One can only hope that the politicizing of the issue subsides as science continues to develop, and when the time comes, a decision is made for the people—not for the interest groups.

Matthew Wrobel is a Policy Analyst with the Center for Development and Strategy and a double major in Political Science and History at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.