Advances in crop biotechnology over the past 20 years have multiplied the range of so-called genetically engineered foods in the average citizen’s diet. Despite reassurances from the international and US scientific community about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the anti-GMO movement continues to gain ground, and has arrived at the state Legislature in the form of a proposal that would create new food-labeling regulations. But until there is a solid scientific reason to believe that genetically modified crops are unhealthy, a labeling requirement would only serve to confuse consumers.
The bill, proposed by state Representative Ellen Story, would require all foods that fall under the broad category of GMOs to be labeled “produced with genetic engineering,” without identifying specific GMO ingredients. Advocates say it would alert those who may object to genetically modified foods to choose other options. But the mere fact of a label would contribute to the stigmatization of food that is actually perfectly healthy. Besides, there’s already an easy solution for the GMO-wary buyer: Labels that tout foods that are not genetically modified.
The use of genetic engineering is prohibited in products labeled as organic. Many other food manufacturers label their products through independent verification programs such as the Non-GMO project, which has certified more than 20,000 products since 2007.
This year, Vermont became the first state to approve a law requiring GMO labels, but it already is being challenged in US District Court by four national food industry groups. Maine and Connecticut passed similar laws but include a trigger clause, like the Massachusetts bill, that keeps the law inactive until other states in the region pass the same measures. New York is also contemplating its own labeling bill, as are two dozen other states.
But few bills would achieve so little while costing so much. A professor from Cornell University conducted a study, albeit sponsored by the food industry, predicting a GMO labeling law could increase food costs for a family of four in the Northeast by $224 to $800 per year, with an average of $500. As for Vermont, lawmakers estimate it would cost the Green Mountain State around $8 million just to defend the law.
That’s a steep price to give consumers virtually no useful information. Many foods are manipulated for sensible reasons through genetic engineering. A GMO labeling law would only drive consumers to more expensive products that would not necessarily be any healthier for them.