Opinion

THE PODIUM

Give consumers a choice to opt out of GMO foods

More than 30 new crops are being developed, including apples and salmon

Wayne Brezinka for the Boston Globe

There is an ongoing debate about the use of genetically engineered ingredients in foods. Are there negative health risks or environmental impacts? Should our kids be eating them? While the debate ensues, shouldn’t we have a clear choice whether or not we want to purchase these products? Today we do not.

Genetically modified organisms can be found throughout our grocery stores and homes. At least 75 percent of processed foods contain GMOs, including nearly every major baby formula brand. As do many other common food items, such as salad dressing, breakfast cereals, and cooking oil. Indeed, while there are currently only nine commercial GMO crops — including corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets — more than 30 new engineered crops are currently being developed, such as apples, coffee, and salmon. Chances are, whether we know it or not, we could soon see them on store selves and our dinner tables.

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Yet, despite the rapid growth in the use of GMOs in our food supply, there remains a lack of transparency for consumers. Unless a shopper researches individual brands before going to the grocery store, they currently can’t know by looking at the packaging if it contains genetically engineered ingredients. That’s because companies are not required to label GMO foods as such.

Opponents of GMO labeling include the chemical manufacturers and junk foods companies, which have spent millions to keep us in the dark about what’s in the foods we eat. They suggest that there is no evidence of harm from GMO foods. But, without labeling and tracking, scientists are unable to look for possible links between GMO food intake and many of the unexplained health problems facing Americans today. Nearly 300 scientists and doctors, including the developer of the first commercialized GMO crop, signed on to a recent statement citing serious safety concerns about GMOs. Independent studies have linked the consumption of GMO foods to digestive disorders, infertility, allergies, and even cancer. These studies warrant further research.

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Ultimately, however, whether it’s for environmental, health, religious, or ethical concerns, the free market is supposed to give consumers the products they want. Without GMO labeling, the food economy is not able to do that.

In recent months, the effort to label GMO foods has received unprecedented attention across the United States. In the past year Connecticut and Maine both passed legislation requiring the labeling of GMO ingredients, both contingent upon other states passing similar legislation. Earlier this month, Vermont passed the nation’s first-ever no-strings-attached GMO labeling bill. Now 26 other states, including Massachusetts, are considering labeling legislation.

Under these laws, food producers — not retailers — are responsible for labeling foods that contain GMO ingredients. Dozens of countries have managed to achieve this standard without increasing food costs. In fact, the United States and Canada are the only two industrialized countries whose citizens cannot easily determine if their food is genetically engineered.

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Here in Massachusetts, with the help of legislative champions, representatives Ellen Story of Amherst and Todd Smola of Palmer, the GMO labeling bill is quickly gaining support and momentum at the state house. According to a poll by the New York Times, 93 percent of Americans favor GMO labeling. More than 20,000 Massachusetts residents have signed a petition in support of the legislation, as have some 150 Massachusetts farms and more than 200 consumer, health, and community organizations.

At the end of the day, while ambiguity clouds the debate around GMO foods, we should give consumers the choice to opt out of this experiment. And all that it takes is a simple label on the side of a package.

Read the rest of this series on GMOs:

GMOs are a key tool to addressing global hunger

Inexpensive solutions still outperform GMOs

Let science, not fear, dictate labeling laws

Martin Dagoberto received his degree in biotechnology and genetics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is the co-founder of Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs and Citizens for GMO Labeling.
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