Unpeeling the Logic Behind GMO Labeling

A state lawmaker from New York City is, once again, pushing for a bill that would require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods across New York State. Linda Rosenthal, the District 67 Assembly Member, sponsored the bill, and Food and Water Watch, an organization that “champions healthy food and clean water for all,” is working to build support across the state. The same bill is also being considered in the state Senate. To provide background, Natasa Bansagi of NY City Lens talked to a number of interested parties. Here is a Q&A based on those interviews.


GMO label (Credit: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

“No GMO” label (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

1. Iterations of this bill have been proposed since 2001, but have so far failed to pass. Does it have a better shot this time?

According to Chuck Bell, programs director at Consumers Union, new GMO foods—like the first FDA-approved genetically engineered salmon—are “raising the profile of the issue for consumers.” At the same time, he said, companies like Kraft and Coca-Cola are putting a lot of money toward opposing the law. Bell said, “I think there’s a pretty strong pressure over time to provide it here in the United States, because we’re one of the last countries in the industrialized world not to have it.”

Yasmeen Silva, Food and Water Watch’s coordinator for Harlem and the Upper West Side, said that there have never been as many co-sponsors to the bill as there currently are, and that more people are also working and volunteering in support of its passing. “While the industry wields money as power, we have a lot of people power, and I think that is the difference this time around and why I am very optimistic about getting it passed this session,” Silva said via email.


2. Who else has such a law?

Sixty-four countries, excluding the U.S., have laws requiring the labeling of GMO products. So far, three states—Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont—have passed laws mandating the labeling of such products within their borders. Maine and Connecticut’s laws are contingent on other states in the region passing similar legislation, while Vermont’s is not, and is scheduled to come into effect in July. Alaska has a law mandating the labeling of GMO fish and fish products, while a broader law surrounding labeling in that state was proposed last year. The Center for Food Safety has created a map of GMO labeling efforts across various U.S. states.


3. Is GMO food already on the shelves?

Yes. According to the Food and Drug Administration, which prefers the term “genetically engineered” to “genetically modified,” in 2012, 93 percent of all soybeans and 88 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. were genetically engineered.

Meanwhile, the debate comes on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval for sale of the first genetically engineered salmon and a December 2015 New York Times editorial that came out in support of labeling. Silva said that there’s been “a lot of widespread support” among New Yorkers for GMO labeling. “Without a bill like the one that we’re pushing for, GMO salmon will go into supermarkets labeled as Atlantic salmon. You’ll have no idea that it’s genetically modified,” Silva said.

New York Assembly Member Rosenthal said that in the U.S. and around the world, people are increasingly interested in knowing what’s in their food: “They work hard for their money and they want to make sure what they feed their families is healthful.”


4. What is the state of the labeling movement?

Rosenthal cited Connecticut’s mandatory labeling law when describing the importance of New York’s law. Although signed by Governor Dannel Malloy in 2013, its implementation is contingent on four other states—at least one of which borders Connecticut—passing similar legislation, “and the total population of such states in the northeast must exceed 20 million.” “The movement is riding on New York’s passage of the bill, at least in the northeast,” Rosenthal said.

The debate over GMO labeling extends to Washington, where a bill for voluntary nationwide labeling—one that would reverse mandatory labeling laws passed by states—passed in the House of Representatives last July. A similar Senate bill was blocked earlier this week. In February, the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food released a letter, signed by 652 “farm, producer, manufacturer, and retail groups”—including Monsanto and AquaBounty Technologies, the company behind the newly approved GMO salmon—expressing support for this now-failed bill. A new Senate bill has also emerged, pushing for mandatory nationwide labeling of GMO products, and offering four ways for manufacturers to do so.

In 2012, Proposition 37, a ballot measure in California that would require GMO labeling, narrowly failed in the state, with approximately 53 percent against. The LA Times reported that approximately 10 million was spent in support of its passing, while over 46 million was spent opposing it. In 2014, a labeling measure was also defeated in the California Senate, by only two votes.

GMO label (Credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

GMO labels on bread (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

5. What is the case against mandatory GMO labeling?

Claire Parker, spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, whose members represent “the entire American agriculture food chain” said her organization is working hard to enact a national labeling standard, adding that a “patchwork of state labeling laws” will increase food prices for consumers.

However, Bell from Consumers Union, which has been supporting GMO labeling in New York State for at least three years, disputed this claim, saying that “because “the advocates of these laws are cooperating very closely with each other,” the approach across states is quite similar. Bell doubts that the voluntary law would lead companies toward GMO food labeling for their products “because manufacturers already have the opportunity to do it on a voluntary basis, and very few have done it.” In January, Campbell’s Soup Company came out in support of mandatory nationwide GMO labeling. Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s is another company that supports such labeling.


6. What about the science?

There is disagreement on the science behind the need to label these products: “Labeling laws don’t provide meaningful information based on science,” Parker said, adding that all evidence points to the safety of GMO products. But Silva said, “the science is still out” when it comes to these products. “They’ve only been around on the market for 20 years. There’s been no long term studies, so we can’t say either way whether they’re definitely good or definitely bad,” Silva said.

Bell also raised a concern about “rising levels” of herbicides applied to GMO crops, adding that glyphosate, an herbicide, was named as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer last year. He said that resistance to herbicides can lead to an increase in super weeds, which can lead farmers to use more pesticides. “This is a big concern for consumers and for environmental groups, and it’s why there’s really big stakes in this fight for how our food is produced and who has input into that decision,” Bell said.


7. So what about costs?

Unsurprisingly, the two sides also disagree on the costs that mandatory labeling would impose. Citing a study released by the Corn Refiners Association, Parker said that food prices could increase by about $1,000 per family annually based on the proposed Vermont legislation. Bell used a figure of $2.30 per person per year from another report by ECONorthwest, making the cost to consumers less than one cent a day.

While Silva says opponents claim that labeling GMO products “inspires fear” in consumers, she says Food and Water Watch sees this as an issue of consumer rights, comparing it to labels that show consumers how much sugar or carbs are in their food, for example. “It would be different if we were saying we should ban it, right, but we’re not,” Silva said. “We just think people have the right to know how their food was produced and what they’re putting in their bodies.”