This story, originally published on July 14, 2016, has been updated as of August 1.
President Obama has signed into law a bill that requires the labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients; the U.S.D.A. has two years to write the rules.
And this gives most Americans what we want: According to a December Associated Press-GfK poll, two-thirds of us support labeling of G.M.O. ingredients on food packages.
Well, sort of.
As the New York Times reports, the law allows manufacturers to label packages either with a symbol that indicates G.M.O. ingredients or with a Q.R. code that can be scanned with a smartphone for more information. And it overrides the strict G.M.O. legislation that went into action in Vermont on July 1 (some companies, like Campbell's and Dannon, have already started to comply with Vermont's law nationwide; others have taken their products off state shelves); but unlike that law, this one does not impose penalties or fines for noncompliance, which has caused some proponents of labeling to deem it a voluntary labeling compromise.
And, even with icons and QR codes, "manufacturers would not be required to provide information on how a food was modified or why." That has people are arguing that the labeling bill does not do nearly enough. Here's the New York Times' editorial board's take:
The biggest problem with the Senate bill is that—instead of requiring a simple label, as the Vermont law does—it would allow food companies to put the information in electronic codes that consumers would have to scan with smartphones or at scanners installed by grocery stores. The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public.
According to Eater, the F.D.A. has argued that the law's definition of "bioengineering" is too narrow, which will permit many foods that come from genetically engineered sources to slip through the cracks and remain unlabeled.
Even members of the G.M.O. industry advocate for more transparency on the proposed labels: "It doesn’t make sense to advocate a better understanding of biotechnology in one breath and, in the other, tell consumers they don’t need to know when that technology is used to make their food," explains Jason Kelly, the co-founder and C.E.O. of the G.M.O. company Gingko Bioworks. Does it do more harm than good to shroud G.M.O.s in secrecy?
Still, on the other side of the debate, are those who believe that "blanket labeling of all products that contain any trace of in-vitro recombinant DNA technology only further polarizes discussion, penalizing all use of the technology and limiting the odds of implementing it as judiciously and safely as possible." And others who argue that the organic industry hinges on scaring consumers about G.M.O.s—and that labels promote this fear-mongering.
Beyond asking yourself whether you believe GMOs are beneficial or harmful in terms of human health, the environment, and the global food shortages (the answers are nuanced, yes), consider these questions, as well:
- What kind of information do you want on your food packages (and how much)?
- How should this information be communicated: in plain language, in a QR code, in an image or icon?
- Even if GMOs have been proven safe, is there still a reason for their presence in food to be evident on the package?
And to get (and stay) informed about what's happening with G.M.O.s. in the news, on both sides of the debate, read on:
- How Square Watermelons Get Their Shape, and Other G.M.O. Misconceptions [New York Times]
- Fresh Absurdity in GMO Labels [The Atlantic]
- Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe, Analysis Finds [New York Times]
- Congress Tackles the Big Problems: GMO Labels on M&M's [The National Review]
- Farm and Food: The Land of Non [Lincoln Journal Star]
- Unhealthy Fixation: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fear-mongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer. [Slate]
- The controversial GMO labeling bill that just passed the Senate, explained [Vox]
Share your opinion on G.M.O.s and labeling laws in the comments below.