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From Lab to Table: We Need a Label

May 01, 2013 By Becca Cohen, Macalester College

Today’s grocery stores offer us a seemingly endless array of choices. Aside from brands, we can choose among gluten free, kosher, organic, and vegan products, but there is no label to indicate if a product is made with genetically modified ingredients.

Since more than 80% of processed foods contain some ingredient that was genetically modified (GMO), mostly because of an engineered corn, soy bean, or sugar beet additive, it’s likely U.S. shopping carts are filled with genetically modified goods. In addition to GMO corn and soybeans, which are the base ingredients for thousands of livestock and consumer food products, some immediately consumable fruits and vegetables are also genetically modified.

Why aren’t goods labeled in some way so consumers can decide to pass on a GMO product?

Farmers and some anti-hunger experts say genetic modification ensures predictable and abundant food supplies at a lower cost. However, studies have shown parts of these benefits may be overstated.

While the long-term impacts of GMO seeds are not known, many researchers have begun to notice some of the side effects that are occurring due to GMOs, including possible threats to biodiversity, increased use of toxic herbicides, and contributions to the rise of “super weeds” and “super bugs.”

More research is needed to determine if the consumption of GE crops is introducing new harmful toxins into our bodies. However, most of the studies linking GMOs to adverse health effects have been done on animals. Anti-GMO scientists criticize much of the research for being short-term, saying generational observations are needed to get a fuller understanding of GMO’s long-term impact on overall health.

Momentum to create greater transparency for GMO food is building, including here in Minnesota, an important food industry hub, hosting Cargill and General Mills. In addition, Minnesota is a large corn and soybean producer. Building greater GMO disclosure support here will have strong implications on industry and consumers.

The United States is one of the only industrialized countries in the world that does not currently mandate GMO labeling. The "Just Label It" campaign, an organization calling for the mandatory labeling of GMO foods, explains that GMO labeling is not a radical idea. Studies show that more than 90% of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Last November, California nearly became the first state to mandate food labeling but the ballot measure, known as Proposition 37, lost 53-47. According to New York Time story following the election, the measure's backers were encouraged it garnered 4.3 million votes, “even though they were outspent about five-to-one by opponents. They are now gathering signatures to place a similar measure on the ballot in Washington State next year.”

Labeling GMOs will not drastically change consumer behavior, but it can be a step in the right direction in offering consumers the right to know which foods are GMOs. Politics will play a huge role in the future of GMO labeling, but the change can start with consumer pressure. Grassroots campaigns in twenty-three states, including Minnesota, have formed a Coalition of States for Mandatory GMO Labeling to require food producers to label genetically modified foods in the USA.

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