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GMO – Should we really “just label it”?

grocery store aisles
“Just label it.” It’s the mantra of GMO opponents seeking mandatory labels on food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Strangely, the message is also gaining favor with some weary GMO supporters, like Mark Lynas – a former activist who used to destroy GMO crops.

“The reason I changed my mind [to support GMOs] is because the science is so clear on the GMO issue, in terms of the safety and the number of studies that have been conducted,” said Lynas at the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention earlier this year.

Clear, indeed.

The World Health Organization; the American Medical Association; the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – all of these scientific entities (and many more) vouch for the safety of GMOs. In fact, FDA has stated “the agency is not aware of any valid scientific information showing the foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class of food, differ from other foods in any meaningful way.”

So why label GMOs, when there’s no credible opposition to their safety or valid scientific proof that they differ from other food in any meaningful way?

“Mandatory labeling is a political compromise because there’s no scientific justification for it, but when enough people consider this to be an issue, I think you have to move,” said Lynas. He also reasoned that a mandatory label will diffuse activists and allow everyday Americans to feel less anxiety about GMOs once they see how ubiquitous they are.

While I admire Lynas’ courage to publicly admit he was wrong on GMOs and understand his pragmatic/psychological reasoning, I disagree with his conclusion for three key reasons:

1. A GMO label (which FDA asserts won’t tell us anything “meaningful” about our food), won’t help clear up rampant confusion.
2. Mandatory GMO labeling will cost us.
3. The fate of GMO technology matters.

Let’s take them one by one:

1. A GMO label won’t clear up confusion.

According to the Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index® (a Harris Poll survey of the factors driving Iowa grocery shoppers’ food purchases), 43 percent of Iowa grocery shoppers believe a “non-GMO” label on food indicates that it is safer.

In the same survey, when asked to name the source they trust most for information about GMOs, the highest percentage of shoppers ranked FDA number one. Remember them? They said that a “non-GMO” label is (essentially) meaningless.

Who do Iowa grocery shoppers ranked second, in terms of sources they trust for GMO information? Farmers! Farmers believe so firmly in the safety and benefits of GMOs (I’ll get into those in a minute), that 93 percent of Iowa’s corn acres and 95 percent of its soybean acres are GMO.

If Iowans are struggling to connect the facts on GMOs – when their trusted sources unanimously support GMOs – it is unlikely that a simple, “meaningless” GMO label will clear things up. If anything, I suspect the label will trigger a snap reaction, encouraging shoppers to avoid something they’re unfamiliar with.

Which wouldn’t necessarily matter (farmers are happy to grow the food that meets consumers’ preferences), if it didn’t have real consequences…

2. Mandatory GMO labeling will cost us.

Discouraging farmers from growing GMOs would mean forgoing (costing ourselves) the benefits of those crops (see #3), but the cost of mandatory GMO labeling is something we’d likely see on price tags as well. According to a study by a Cornell University professor, mandatory GMO labeling in New York would cost a family of four an additional $500 per year.

3. The fate of GMO technology matters.

Before we stigmatize technology that helps farmers use less pesticide; allows food to be produced with better nutritional value, texture and flavor; helps feed more people around the world; produces better crop yields (to make more efficient use of land); produces food with a longer shelf life; and more – don’t you think we should try explaining the benefits of GMO technology to America at least one more time – with feeling?!

I think most people would look at GMOs (and the “need” for a label) differently. In fact, the Food and Farm Index found that most Iowa grocery shoppers are influenced to purchase GMO food when they learn how GMOs can help farmers use less pesticide and help produce food with better nutritional value. But good luck getting all of that important information on a simple, mandatory label.

Yes, life will go on without GMOs (at least for most people in this country).

So if you’re apathetic (farmers will continue growing food even without GMOs), pragmatic (GMO opponents won’t stop stirring up the public until we give them some kind of mandatory label), or find yourself wanting a mandatory label (just because you’d like to know), there’s one important question to ask yourself before we waive the white flag.

Would you trade something meaningful for something experts deem meaningless?

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.