When grocery store chain Whole Foods announced last week that it will require labeling by 2018 of all products that carry genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), it was the first major U.S. company to make such a move. It wasn’t, however, the first sign that a shift may be on the way over how much consumers know about whether the food they buy has been engineered in a lab.
Study and debate over whether eating GMOs could be harmful to people has been underway for years, with little conclusive evidence in either direction. More than 60 countries have required labeling of GMO foods, but for U.S. consumers who want to know whether they’re eating foods whose genes have been manipulated, the only indication currently available is that foods labeled “USDA organic” cannot undergo genetic engineering. As for everything else we eat, it’s impossible to know for sure in either direction.
Last year, a bill to require GMO labeling in California failed in a ballot question to voters, but New Hampshire lawmakers, along with state legislatures in Vermont, Connecticut, Missouri, New Mexico and Washington, are taking up similar measures. New Hampshire’s HB 660 has been retained for study in the House Environment and Agriculture committee, while in Vermont lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee gave a labeling bill a thumbs up. That bill faces an uncertain future before the Judiciary Committee before it would get to the full House.
But opponents of GMO labeling — among those leading the charge is Missouri-based Monsanto, a biotechnology corporation that is a major producer of patented, genetically-modified seeds — say there’s no proof that engineered foods make people sick, and forcing companies to label foods will make food prices rise to cover what they claim will be an expensive labeling process. Last year, Monsanto threatened to sue Vermont if it passed GMO labeling legislation. The company previously sued the Green Mountain State over a law that required labeling of milk containing hormones and won, requiring the law to be softened to voluntary labeling.
It’s troubling that Monsanto and other opponents of GMO labeling are working hard to keep consumers in the dark about what they’re eating. Just as we have a right to know what’s in the food we eat, which is provided on mandatory food ingredient labels, and make choices based on that information, we should also be able to find out whether what we eat has been genetically engineered. Just as many people continue to buy processed food containing chemical preservatives that others shun, many consumers will likely be unfazed by a GMO label. But the choice should be ours to make.