One of the latest people to speak in favor of GMO labeling laws will come as a surprise to many. Rob Fraley, Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto, released a statement this weekend declaring his — and the company’s — stance on labeling GMO foods, and it isn’t what you might expect.
It’s a contentious subject. Many consumers fear that genetically modified foods could be dangerous, and that they are less natural than foods whose genes haven’t been altered in a lab. Meanwhile, most scientists agree that there’s no reason to fear GMO products, and that altering an organism in a lab setting isn’t significantly different than altering it through the cross-breeding or artificial selection.
Advocates explain that genetically modifying food is something that humans have done since we learned to farm.
Mother Nature has been genetically modifying organisms for nearly four-billion years. Farmers for ten-thousand years.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 16, 2016
Further, science- and medicine-based groups, including the American Medical Association, have released statements declaring that GMO foods appear to be safe, and that there is no evidence for a need of special labeling.
As for safety, according to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Science, not only are GMO foods subjected to the same safety regulations as other food items, but nearly $300 million spent in Europe on testing genetically modified crops could find no substantial difference between them and their non-GM counterparts.
Still, many consumers worry that GMO products created by deliberate swapping of DNA from one organism to another carry risks that aren’t inherent in hybrids creating through a cross-pollination. Words like “frankenfood” are tossed around, and there’s a fear that creations nature might ordinarily forbid could be forced in a lab. This, of course, presupposes that “nature” has a habit of forbidding the creation of deadly organisms.
Another aspect of the labeling controversy is simple “right to know” — the idea that, whether or not GMO foods are dangerous in any way, if consumers want to know, and are asking to know, whether their foods come from genetically modified crops, then they have a right to that information. It has also become a major political battleground.
When the United States already requires labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients, there is no practical reason GMOs cannot join that list.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 20, 2016
In some states, labeling laws have already passed — and several corporations say that they’ll remove their foods from those states rather than alter their packaging.
However, their complaint isn’t simply labeling — it’s that changing the labels for a single state is too expensive to be cost-effective.
In fact, individual states supporting different labeling regulations is one of Monsanto’s chief complaints about the proposals, alongside the concern that regulations might make GMO products appear inferior or dangerous.
“Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts, and creates a confusing and costly patchwork of state laws.”
However, on Friday, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer, Robb Fraley, released a statement indicating that the company is not opposed to all labeling, and in fact recognizes the “right to know” argument — and he says, after listening to consumers’ concerns about labels, he’d support a federal labeling initiative.
“… I believe a federal standard to establish consistent, nationwide guidelines for how companies label their products as containing GMOs would provide the kind of clarity and uniformity that American consumers deserve.”
He goes on to, again, address problems with individual states setting their own regulations for labeling.
“… a state-by-state approach where misleading GMO labeling requirements could vary from state to state, manufacturer to manufacturer, and product to product. With a patchwork approach, farmers and food producers may have to separate, repackage and re-label products differently for sale in each state, raising their costs at a time when American agriculture can least afford it. As states develop and implement different labeling laws, food companies could be forced to create multiple supply chains, warehousing and delivery mechanisms to comply. And, these companies would be forced to move away from a safe, economical and environmentally beneficial agricultural tool — GMOs — altogether. All of this will ultimately increase costs for consumers, hurting low-income families most.”
Companies pulling their products out of Vermont with the new GMO labeling laws going into effect are a sign that this concern is valid. Here‘s what General Mills, for instance, had to say about it.
“We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that.
“The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products.
“With the Vermont labeling legislation upon us, and with the distinct possibility that other states will enact different labeling requirements, what we need is simple: We need a national solution.”
There’s no question that GMO labeling will be a matter of political debate for some time — but it’s beginning to appear that the compromise corporations are willing to make is to accept labeling, as long as it’s consistent nationwide.
[Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images]