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Debate: Mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods

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Should governments require that genetically modified foods be labeled?

Background and context

Genetically modified foods have been a concern for many people around the world. Europeans have been the most vocal in their opposition to genetically modified foods, implementing strict labeling requirements for any GM foods sold in their stores.
The European Commission has proposed mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods that contain even a single ingredient with one percent genetically modified material. In the United States, by contrast, there are no mandatory labeling requirements in place. Over two dozen countries outside of the EU have labeling requirements for GM foods. Obviously, many more do not have such requirements. The question of whether these labeling laws are good national public policy is an open one around the world. One central argument in favor of labeling GM foods is that it is important for consumers to have a choice in consuming or avoiding products made with GM ingredients. A primary argument against labeling is that there are no proven health risks surrounding GM foods, while labels seem to imply such hazards. This article documents over two dozen additional pros and cons.

See Wikipedia's article on genetically modified foods

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Risks: Are GM foods a health risk?

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Pro

  • Labeling helps inform consumers of risks of GM foods There are certain risks surrounding the consumption of genetically modified foods. These generally surround the use of various bacterias in the construction of new strains of foods, which if consumed, and potentially have harmful effects on humans. Labels help inform consumers that a particular product has such modifications and caries such health risks, so that if they are strongly concerned about GM foods, they can be sure that they are eating 100% natural foods.
  • Labeling GM foods applies precautionary principle to unknown risks. Many things are not known about the effects of GM foods. It is appropriate, therefore, to be cautious. Labeling of GM foods fits into this principle of caution in the face of unknowns. In particular, it gives consumers the choice to avoid GM foods if they think these unknown risks are intolerable.
  • GM foods are not comparable to traditional breeding Traditional "engineering" techniques involved naturally cross-breeding two different plants to produce a more desirable outcome - something that happens naturally in the evolutionary process. Genetic engineering is entirely different, involving splicing DNA and introducing various proteins, bacterias, and artificial chemicals. The clear distinction helps justify labeling.


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Con

  • Labeling ignores that all foods are genetically modified. Almost all foods have been genetically modified in the sense that they are the result of breeding between plants and species. It is wrong, therefore, to label foods that have been genetically modified with more modern techniques, as the only "genetically modified" foods on the shelf, when, in truth, almost all the foods have been modified in a similar way.


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Consumer choice: Is labeling of GM foods important to consumer choice?

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Pro

  • Labeling respects opinion of those not wanting to consume GM foods. Many people are highly opposed to consuming genetically modified foods. The government must respect that opinion, and give these individuals the ability to avoid GM foods, simply by labeling GM foods so that they can make such a choice. To not mandate this is to disregard and disrespect these opinions.
  • Labeling internalizes risks for those choosing to eat GM foods. Labeling foods makes it possible for individuals to choose to take on the risks involved, or to avoid them. This makes it similar to smoking, eating fatty foods, or even something like rock climbing. The individual that adopts the risks adopts them with fully knowledge, and assumes the potential harm entirely on their own. This is opposed to a society without labeling, where individuals do not have the choice as to whether to adopt the risks, which is unjust.
  • Labeling would make "superior" GM foods stand out. Labeling would make it clear to consumers which foods, fruits, and vegetables on the shelves are GM and which are not, which would make clearer the "superiority" of GM products.
  • Labeling ensures vegetarians can avoid GM food animal ingredients. For religious or ethical reasons, many individuals want to avoid eating animal products, including animal DNA. GM foods often use animal DNA in some form or another. Labeling helps ensure that these individuals can avoid consuming such animal products.
  • Unlabelled GM foods violate free right to exercise religion. Unlabelled GM foods may include GM ingredients or DNA from certain animals or other sources that people of certain faiths strongly oppose consuming. Labeling helps ensure these individuals can avoid such foods and freely exercise their religion.


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Con

  • Difficulty enforcing GM food labels limits actual consumer choices. It is very difficult to test foods to ensure that those that are considered "GM free" are actually "free" of GM materials. This is an obvious practical issue, especially when one considers how high the volume of food products is and how rapidly they are consumed. Ensuring, by testing, that each harvest and item of food appearing on store shelves is at or below a certain level of GM-ingredients is obviously very difficult, and perhaps even impossible. This means that consumers are likely to be consuming GM ingredients even when they are consuming foods with GM-free labels. Thus, the actual choice of consumers to avoid GM foods is actually very limited, even with labels, due to these practical constraints on labels.
  • Labeling of GM foods has not shown to change consumer behavior. Surveys in Canada, Japan, Norway, the U.S. and the U.K. indicated that consumers want GM foods to be labeled, but an experimental test in North America showed that GM labels did not have a significant impact on consumer purchasing. If the idea is for information on labels to affect consumer behavior, the fact that it does not, raises the question, "what's the point?".
  • Most don't mind GM foods, but would pay costs of labeling. One of the basic debates surrounding labeling regards the overall cost-benefit analysis to all individuals involved. One strong argument, in this regard, against labeling, is that individuals that there are more individuals that don't mind GM foods, but whom would have to pay the extra food prices associated with labeling, as compared to individuals that mind GM foods and are willing to accept the added costs of labeling.


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Economics: Is labeling GM foods economically sound?

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Pro

  • Cost of labeling GM foods are exaggerated by opponents "Report Shows Cost to Label Genetically Engineered Food is Overblown." Organic Consumers Association. March 19, 2007: "Mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods would cost much less than the food industry has claimed, a new study commissioned by Quebec's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reveals. [...] The as-yet-unpublished study, obtained by The Gazette, estimates the yearly cost of such a program at Cdn$28 million (US$23.8 million) to Quebec's food industry and Cdn$1.7 million ($1.4 million) to the provincial government. [...] Previous studies commissioned by the food industry - and cited by the federal and Quebec governments as reason not to act on the issue - pegged the annual cost of implementing such a system at up to Cdn$950 million ($807.7 million) (both government and industry) for the whole country, and up to Cdn$200 million ($170 million) in Quebec alone."
  • Labeling of GM foods deters further market/trade disruptions. Labeling would help reduce much of the international fear regarding importing from countries that produce GM foods. It would help separate out foods that are not genetically modified, and would generally reduce the international anxieties that have disrupted market transactions and trade across borders.(Biotechnology Issues, 2001).
  • Labeling GM foods addresses market failure on consumer health Labeling GM foods responds to market failures to sufficiently protect consumers against the potential risks of GM foods. Food production companies themselves will not respond sufficiently to these problems. The government must step in on its own and ensure labeling and the protection of consumers.
  • Labeling helps protect the legitimate place of GM foods. Labeling may actually be critical in protecting what might be called the "legitimate place" or niche for genetically modified foods, such as the use of GM foods to help end malnutrition in some countries. Without such labeling, public anxiety and fears are likely to grow over their inability to avoid the potential harms of GM foods. With such labeling, those that want to avoid the food can do so and will not cry out as loudly about GM foods. This will help protect the more legitimate role of GM foods from growing public fears and criticism.


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Con

  • Labeling of genetically modified foods is costly. Labeling of genetically modified foods costs money. It is not free. It requires that all companies be regulated, that they ensure that they have or do not have a certain level of GM ingredients in their foods, and that labels be placed on these food products. This would be very expensive. This would harm prices, jobs, salaries, and overall economic health. It would also probably require an increase in taxes to fund new regulatory bodies for GM foods.
  • Labeling of genetically modified foods increases food prices. Labeling of genetically modified foods makes it more expensive for many food companies to produce their foods, as it requires that they regulate their food production, check to ensure that they are below the GM food level. This means that the ultimate food product must be priced at a higher level for consumers, to compensate for their added expenses in complying with labeling.
  • There is not much space on food products for GM labels. Many food products have very limited space on their packaging for extra labels. Mandating GM labeling forces food producers to divert limited space, subjecting them to a disadvantage. And, in general, food labels should be used to convey important safety and health information to consumers, rather than facts that may not be important - such as whether some GM ingredients are in a food product.
  • Labeling of genetically modified foods segregates the market. Labeling creates a market in which some goods are labeled and others are not. This segregates the market into, presumably, more wholesome and less wholesome products. This is unfair to the GM food industry, as there is no conclusive evidence that their product is inferior in any way, and there is plenty of evidence that their products are actually superior?


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Practicality: Is labeling GM foods practical?

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Pro


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Con

  • Labeling all foods containing any GM ingredients is impractical. There are too many foods in the modern era that contain some ingredients that are affected by genetic modification. The the meat from cattle that consume GM feed stock be considered genetically modified?
  • Defining GM and non-GM foods is nearly impossible. Almost all foods are genetically modified in some way, either by cross-breeding of species, selective harvesting, or more modern engineering. Defining only the more modern approaches as the GM foods and not the other, more ancient methods of genetic engineering runs into difficulties. In addition, what about cases in which a single ingredient is genetically modified? A good example is the corn and feedstock that is consumed by cattle. Should the resulting meat be considered genetically modified? The challenge lies in drawing the line, and the line is likely to be arbitrary.
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PR: Is labeling of GM foods superior PR for food producers?

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Pro

  • Food producers opposing GM labels appear to be hiding risks. Food producers that do not label would appear to have something to hide, particularly regarding the safety of GM foods. By labeling their foods, producers (even of GM foods) will come off as more confident in their products, settling the significant international fears surrounding the consumption of these foods.
  • GM food producers opposing labels seem against consumer choice. Even if it is not the case, food producers opposing labeling their GM products give off the appearance of not carrying about their consumers' right to an informed choice in what they consume. This is purely bad public relations.
  • GM labeling improves confidence in food safety measures "Importance of labeling GM foods". GM.org: "Importance of labeling GM foods. An effective and successful labeling strategy for GM foods is impossible unless we develop precise traceability mechanisms to identify where GM ingredients are in the food chain. Regulatory and scientific inability to map out GM food products from fields to tables may act to lessen public confidence regarding food security. So in order to increase consumer confidence and trust in GM food products, information about improved traceability methods should be provided."
  • It is good for labeling to turn consumers off to GM foods. There is nothing wrong with labeling turning consumers off to GM foods. That's a good thing. While some argue that it is "unfair", there is sufficient evidence to indicate that GM foods are risky and should be avoided. Anything that helps this cause, such as labeling, should be celebrated.


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Con

  • Labeling of GM foods alarms and turns-away consumers. Labeling of GM foods would create an immediate sense among consumers that there is something wrong with GM foods. This is particularly true when considering that most consumers are not too nuanced in their understanding of the nature of GM foods, the debate surrounding them, the alleged risks, and the fact that most of the foods they are consuming are already genetically engineered in some way. It is naive to believe that consumers would feel better and more assured after the labeling of these products, or that they would feel empowered by a new-found choice. Instead, they would be alarmed and the number of labels appearing on the shelves, and would become more anxious about GM foods. This would be unfortunate in many regards, most important of which is the fact that there is no hard evidence that GM foods are any riskier than ordinary crops and food produce.


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Polls: What do opinion polls indicate?

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Pro


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Con

  • Opinions vary significantly in different places. No single opinion poll can capture the wide differences between different groups in different places in this debate.
  • Opinion is often divided or ambivalent on labeling GM foods. "No consensus on mandatory labeling for GM food." The Straits Times (Singapore). April 28, 2008: "there is no consensus on the labelling of GM food and food ingredients to address consumer preferences."


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Pro/con sources

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See also

External links

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