Should the government make labeling food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) mandatory?

LIke all the issues surrounding GMOs, the question of whether mandatory labeling is a good thing or bad stirs up heated debate. And the opening day of the AgBio Summit in Raleigh included its own GMO give-and-take.

In today’s news, singer Neil Young called for a boycott of Starbucks, alleging it is part of a trade association bringing a lawsuit challenging Vermont’s GMO labeling law, although Starbucks denies it is part of any such suit.

That’s not the only GMO issue causing headlines. Also agrochemical giant Syngenta, which has a big and growing presence in Research Triangle Park, faces a growing number of lawsuits for allegedly releasing a genetically modified corn seed unapproved by China, leading it to reject U.S. corn imports and costing $1 billion in losses to farmers.

A quick Google search of “GMOs” will turn up a host of screeds claiming GMOs cause health problems, spread uncontrollably, or have other nasty effects.

Unfortunately, noted Kevin Folta, a Ph.D and chair of the University of Florida’s Horticultural Sciences Department, much of the criticism of GMOs is not based on science, it’s based on fear.

Folta noted during a panel discussion (“Is GMO labeling a nightmare or a boon?”) that his daughter likes to pick the red M&Ms out of the bag to eat and told her, years ago there were no red M&Ms because people using bad science created fears that a Red food dye was a carcinogen. “Fear is very strong in manipulating public perceptions,” he said.

Bo Stone, co-owner and operator of 2,500-acre P&S farms, said that “As a farmers, we have adopted GMOs widely. They need less water and fewer chemical applications than traditional crops. I see the benefit they have on our farms.” He opposes mandatory labeling of GMOs because of the additional costs it would cause and a lack of necessity.

Besides, he said, there is also a solution in place. Foods labelled organic cannot contain GMOs.

“Farmers are the only businessmen who buy retail, sell wholesale and pay the freight both ways,” he said, suggesting that mandatory labeling would be costly both to the farmer and the consumer.

In Favor of Mandatory Labeling

Two panelists from consumer focused groups, Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, and Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs of the Environmental Working Group, both strongly favored mandatory labeling.

The Consumers Union has 220 members in 110 countries. Hansen said, “We would like to see the U.S join the 64 other countries that already have mandatory labeling.” Ideally, he said, that should happen at a national level, but noted that typically states act first, as in Vermont.

Faber added, “Being supportive of GMOs doesn’t mean you have to oppose mandatory labeling. People have a right to know what’s in their food and they want to know a lot about their food, where it’s from and how it’s made.”

Part of the problem is that people lost faith in companies selling them food with “Misleading labels like ‘natural.’ So it’s a matter of trust.”

Monsanto: A Technology Ban

Folta objected that people aren’t just asking for mandatory labeling. In effect, he said, they’re asking for a ban on the technology.

In Europe, for instance, said Phil Miller, Ph.D and vice president of global government and regulatory affairs for Monsanto, “Once you get the label, what do people do with it? Look no further than the European Union. Once the system was in place and the stamp was on the products, people put retailers under tremendous pressure by demonizing the products. Many decided the best way to go was not to deal with it. So consumers lost choice. That’s a good indication of how it’s likely to play out in the U.S.”

Miller did admit that Monsanto has not done as good a job as it might over the years have in dealing with consumer concerns about its agbio products

“What this is really about,” countered Faber, “is that people want to know about their food.” There is a TV food network, the Washington Post journalist moderating the panel, Tama Haspel, writes about food, and half of millennials consider themselves “foodies.”

“It’s a material fact,” said Hansen. It’s like vegetarians or Muslims who want to know if there is animal proteins in their food.

Folta, however, said what’s really needed is education on the science, not mandatory labeling. The problem, he said, “Is that this discussion in not ruled by science.”

Folta, Stone and Miller all noted at various times that GMOs actually go through rigorous testing before they’re “released into the marketplace.”

Haspel, the Washington Post journalist took a poll at the beginning and end of the panel discussion to see where people stand on the issue. When she asked at the end if the discussion had changed anyone’s mind, not a single hand rose.