In my law class, titled Risk Regulation: the U.S., Europe and Beyond, we will be discussing this week the topic of food safety. Thus, it was quite ironic this morning that I opened the local newspaper to an article about Washington state voters planning to vote on genetically modified (GM) food labeling on November 5th . If passed, the measure would be a first in the United States for GM food labeling. Similar to initiatives related to a soda tax, the food industry is strongly against the measure, with agribusiness giant Monsanto and others funding a $17 million campaign against GM food labeling in Washington state according to the article. They contend that there is no scientific reason to add thousands of new labels to foods, and that 70 to 80 percent of the products on the market already contain genetically modified ingredients. Currently, most GM crops are used either for industrial purposes, such as cotton, or for livestock feed and production of sugars and oils coming from soy and corn. Pro-consumer groups are for the labeling measure, contending a consumer’s right-to-know, with a concern for potential health effects.
Should Washington state, or the federal government for that matter, enforce GM food labeling? I am all in favor of providing more information to the consumer to help him or her make the correct decision, especially concerning health, but what kind of information would a GM food label provide a consumer? Are GM foods less healthy or environmentally friendly than non-GM foods? That question is still in debate. On the one side, GM crops do provide benefits such as increased protection against pests and disease, while on the other we are still trying to understand potential health and environmental effects from the introduction of genetic traits from other organisms into a food crop.
At this point, I believe that it is too early for a GM food label. While the label would notify a consumer of a food’s genetically modified status, there still has not been enough research done to inform the consumer on the benefits and costs of genetically modified foods to society. Much of Europe has taken a high and unfounded level of caution against genetically modified foods, stemming from the unrelated mad cow disease incident that happened in Great Britain in the 1990s. Regulation without proper evidence can lead to a lack of innovation, which in turn could prevent the invention of food products that are more healthy or environmentally friendly.
What do I think is the proper way forward on GM food labeling? Considering the demand for GM food labeling, with 26 states so far this year introducing GM food labeling bills, let us allow GM food labeling much in the way of cage free raised eggs. In this situation, the consumer who wants GM free food products will be able to choose them without drawing unusual and unfounded alarm to GM food products by the general consumer who, before the label, was unconcerned. All of the interest in GM food labeling needs to be taken into account by state and federal governments and should come with increased funding to study the potential health and environmental effects of GM foods, not by creating unfounded concern by the public through a GM food label.