Just like weeds in my garden, news items about labeling of foods made with biotech crops, often called GMOs, are sure to be popping up in Iowa and all over the country as we head into summer. That’s because, unless Congress acts, Vermont is about to enact a law that requires labeling of GMO foods, or at least a certain portion of them. Other states may also set their own labeling laws that are different from Vermont’s.

That could create a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws and ultimately threaten a valuable and promising technology.

Mandatory GMO labeling, no matter what labeling advocates claim, is not really a useful or valuable tool for consumers. It will only add to confusion over food labels, without adding any pertinent safety information. Studies show it will also raise consumers’ food bills.

And perhaps worst of all, labeling has the potential to stigmatize biotechnology in food production. It’s a technology that’s already proven safe and valuable, and has the promise to improve diets here at home and around the world, while helping farmers protect the environment.

Certainly every consumer has the right to buy and consume the foods they want, GMO or not. Food companies should also be free to truthfully label and differentiate their products with “non-GMO” labels. Those products are easy to find; just look around in the supermarket, and you’ll see the non-GMO labels are there.

But forcing labels on food with biotech ingredients poses many thorny problems.

First, it makes no sense to force a warning-type label on a loaf of bread or can of soup made using biotech crops. Those products are just as safe and nutritious as those made from non-biotech ingredients.

Who says so? Only the world’s top credible scientific authorities — including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association. That confirmation of safety was recently backed by a new study from the National Academies of Science.

GMO crops are also well-tested for safety in extensive consumer and environmental studies. Those tests have been reviewed in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and similar organizations internationally.

Second, the nation’s food safety agencies have sensibly reserved mandatory labels for foods that raise a safety or health concern. A good example of the need for a label is the potential presence of an allergen that could be harmful to some consumers. Mandatory labels also make a lot of sense if there is a change to the food’s composition or nutrition from its conventional counterpart, such as low-fat milk.

Adding labels for GMO ingredients, which have been proven safe and nutritious, just doesn’t make sense.
Food companies are already starting to change their labels to comply with Vermont’s law. And there’s a good chance it won’t stop there, because other states are proposing labeling laws for GMO foods. Each state law is different, creating a sort of labeling anarchy that promises to add confusion for consumers and expense for food companies.

Consumers are likely to feel the pinch of those added costs. A study by New York-based Cornell University showed that mandatory labeling for GMOs, if it is required, would add about $500 per year more to the annual grocery bill for a family of four in New York. Other studies have put the cost of labeling much higher.

Finally, mandatory labels could force farmers all over the world to cut back or even abandon crops with biotech traits. That would be a tremendous loss.

To date, these crops have helped the environment by allowing farmers to cutback on pesticides needed to control yield-robbing weeds and insects. The GMO crops have also helped farmers raise yields on existing crops acres, reducing the pressure to open new lands that are typically more environmentally fragile.

Consumers around the world would also be deprived of a new wave of GMO crops with added nutritional value. Iowa farmers, for the first time this spring, planted biotech soybeans that produce healthier oil than their conventional counterparts.

GMO crops also promise to help farmers around the world raise crops with added nutritional attributes and reduced environmental impacts. A good example of that is Golden Rice, which has been modified to contain vitamin A. Adding this essential nutrient to a traditional crop can save millions of lives per year, researcher say.

Yes, it’s just a little label on a food package. But impacts of mandatory labeling laws will likely have big and bad consequence both here in Iowa, and around the world.