Does Your Food Contain GMOs? Consumers Want Better Labeling

By Hanna Brooks Olsen, for Blisstree.com

If you’ve recently eaten corn, soy beans (or products containing them, like soy milk and tofu) zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, or conventionally-raised meat, worn anything made of cotton, or cooked with canola oil, you’ve probably pretty familiar with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). You just may not realize it, because, under currently food labeling laws, GMOs aren’t required to be disclosed. Anywhere. And consumers aren’t super-happy about that.

Just Label It, an advocacy campaign organized by Organic Voices and made up of over 500 partner organizations, is just one of many consumer groups that are pushing for better, more comprehensive labeling of genetically modified, engineered, and transgenic foods. Sue McGovern, of Just Label It, says clear, comprehensive labeling isn’t just for fringe groups and hippies–it’s what most consumers want.

“Every major consumer opinion poll on GE-food labeling shows that the majority of Americans want labeling and they believe they have the right to know,” she told me.

While the lack of labeling makes them seem almost non-existant, genetically modified organisms and foods are pretty pervasive in today’s food climate. With the demand for inexpensive produce in all seasons, more and cheaper meat products (most livestock in America, which is the biggest producer of GMO foods, eat them regularly, says McGovern, because corn and soy are popular in animal feed), commercial growers, crop developers, and food processes, are looking for ways to grow more homogenize, reliable crops, year after year. And the only way to get that is to modify the genetics of the plants to ensure that they’re stable, consistent–and basically always the same. Which, according to food producers, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Advocates for their use, including the FDA and a company called Monsanto, who made a pro-GMO coloring book for kids, are always quick to tout the facts: genetically-modified foods are more pest resistant, they’re pretty much safe (as far as we know), they can resist droughts and cold, and they can be engineered to deliver more nutrients. But, says McGovern, it’s not whether or not GMOs are unhealthy or bad for the environment. It’s about transparency.

“We are working to label GE foods not because they are unsafe or unhealthy, because the jury is still out on that, but because we believe Americans have a right to know so they can make informed decisions about the food they eat and feed their families.”

However, health and safety are a concern for some individuals–mostly because neither the FDA, EPA, or USDA have ever actually conducted any kind of long-term research regarding the human health impacts of GMOs. But for the time being, Just Label It and other organizations are just trying to give consumers the option to pick GMO or non-GMO foods, based on the labels. Which, currently, we’re not really able to do, unless companies (like those on this list) decide to go GMO-free on their own.

A recent win in Connecticut is being lauded as a big step toward required labeling, but for Just Label It and other groups, this is a matter for the Federal government, not individual states. That’s why Just Label It and the Center for Food Safety have filed a legal petition with the FDA, which calls on the government organization to require labeling of genetically engineered products. As of March 27, the “due date” for the petition, it had officially reached 1 million signatures. Now, the ball is in the FDA’s court. If the FDA doesn’t respond, says the group, the next step is “a judicial review.”

In the mean time, concerned consumers can continue to look for products which label themselves as “GMO-free,” and hope that the producers are being truthful, as well as continue to write to their lawmakers and emphasis the importance of labeling. Because regardless of whether or not GMOs turn out to have any negative health implications, it would be nice to know what’s actually in our food.