Do you have a right to know about GMOs?

By | February 11th, 2016

Do you have a right to know what’s on your dinner plate? Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) thinks so. And I do, too.

The food industry wants to keep you in the dark and has strenuously challenged a 2014 Vermont law requiring labeling of all food and beverages containing GMOs sold in the state by July 2016.

Known as the Vermont Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act, the law requires that labels disclose the presence of GMOs in food products. So the issue here is not whether GMOs should be banned, as they have been in 64 countries, but whether their inclusion in a food product should be disclosed in the product labeling.

What are GMOs? Genetically Modified Organisms are engineered by inserting genes into the genetic material — DNA — of plants or animals. Why do this? Inserting genes into seeds transmits certain traits, such as resistance to herbicides.

Opposing the will of consumers (I’ll get to that in a minute), the food industry is attempting to get Congress to overturn Vermont’s law before it goes into effect. The industry argues that GMOs are safe, and a patchwork of state laws isn’t practical.

Labeling advocates have been fighting state-by-state to enact laws, such as the one in Vermont, with the eventual goal of a national standard.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack brought the opponents and proponents together recently to see if they could work out a compromise. Agreement is unlikely. Legislators on Capitol Hill are divided on this issue, but agree that a compromise needs to be worked out before this summer. The Vermont case will be critical for Connecticut and Maine, which have GMO labeling laws that will go into effect when nearby states pass similar laws. Massachusetts and New York also have labeling bills going through the legislative process.

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In 2014, 35 bills were introduced in 20 states on the issue. Unfortunately, in recent years labeling ballot initiatives have been narrowly defeated in California, Washington and Oregon. Proponents were significantly outspent by opponents, which included major agribusiness and biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont, as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an anti-labeling trade group.

As a backdrop to this drama, in the fall of 2015 the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599). Opponents of this legislation call it the DARK Act — Deny Americans the Right to Know — since federal law would prohibit mandatory GMO labeling and nullify existing state labeling laws. The bill was sent to the Senate and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Again, the issue here is consumers’ right to know what is in their food and beverages so that they can make informed choices about what to buy. The larger issue: Should GMOs be ingested at all?

Tips for avoiding GMOs. If you want to avoid GMOs altogether, the Center For Food Safety’s True Food Shopper’s Guide suggests that you:

  • Buy organic. Products labeled 100 percent organic do not contain GMOs.
  • Look for voluntary “Non-GMO” or “made Without Genetically Modified Ingredients” labels.
  • Avoid at-risk ingredients. Products made from the “Big Five” usually contain genetically engineered crops: corn (and products), soybeans, canola oil (or grapeseed oil), cottonseed and sugar beets.

Most (85-90 percent) of the “Big Five” grown in this country contain Monsanto’s patented genetically altered genes, and were grown using conventional agricultural practices that may contain GMOs.This means that you must buy organic or GMO-free corn products, soybeans and the remaining “Big Five” to avoid ingesting pesticides or herbicides.

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The food industry admits that 75 percent to 80 percent of foods contain GMOs, which were introduced into the U.S. food supply 20 years ago.

Although there is no documented health risk to eating genetically engineered foods, the public is outraged. Most people do not want GMOs in their food. Specifically, a recent nationally representative poll from Consumer Reports found that 92 percent of people said they want GMO foods labeled.

Advocates for labeling say not enough is known about their risks. According to the World Health Organization, there are three main issues of concern for GMOs:

Allergenicity: The potential to provoke allergic reaction by transferring genes from allergenic to non-allergenic organisms.

Gene transfer: Transferring genetically engineered genes from GMO foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health.

Outcrossing: The migration of genes from genetically modified plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild, as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with GMO crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security.

Where can you find GMO-free food? Whole Foods now offers more than 25,000 certified organic products and about 11,500 Non-GMO Project Verified products in their stores. The company is confident that it will meet their goal of carrying only non-GMO food by 2018. The market chain strongly supports mandatory labeling of GMO-derived food.

The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, offers North America’s only third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. The Non-GMO Project currently has nearly 35,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products from more than 1,900 brands, representing well over $13.5 billion in annual sales.

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There are organic or health food stores in many parts of the country that sell non-GMO products only. In Sacramento, my city, the Sacramento Natural Food Cooperative offers a great deal of organic and non-GMO food, and supports federally mandated labeling and Non-GMO Project labeling.

Chipotle became the first fast-food chain to serve all GMO-free food. Their slogan is “Food With Integrity, G-M-Over It.” Fortunately, we have three Chipotle restaurants within a few miles of our home, as well as five Asian restaurants offering organic tofu (a vegan protein source and substitute for meat, derived from organic soybeans). What’s available in your city?

As someone who has avoided pesticides and herbicides just about my entire adult life, I support federally mandated labeling. Yet, I am pessimistic. Chances look bleak for establishing nationwide labeling as the Vermont law is under attack, and the DARK Act would nullify existing state labeling laws. And banning GMOs entirely does not seem to be even a remote possibility.

Should consumers have the right to know if their food contains GMOs?

View Results

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  • JewelEyed

    I am so disappointed with this article. There is absolutely no scientific basis for the assertions this article makes nor the fear it encourages. I am so frustrated that I have lost the ability to form words to express the extent of it.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While I agree with labeling (because people should have choices, even if they are inaccurate), the concerns mentioned above are absurd.

    With regard to allergenicity, the specific protein transferred in GMOs is known, and the proteins have not been those associated with allergens. I would challenge the author to identify a specific GMO that has transferred a protein demonstrated as an allergen.

    Gene transfer is even sillier. Any gene added to a GMO plant is generally from another organism that is also consumed by people, and thus any transfer need not occur via the medium of GMO plants, but may occur directly by consuming the original organism. The most common GMO gene that seems to cause concern is the toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis, a “natural” bacteria that is used by organic farmers on crops, and will be present at low levels on much of the organic produce that is consumed. So if the gene could transfer into your gut bacteria somehow, it would be easier to transfer from the Bt bacteria consumed directly than from the plant nucleus as it is being digested.

    Outcrossing is only a concern if you don’t approve of any of the environmental changes made by humans over the last 5000 years. All of our food products are “outcrossed”, bred, and very different than the original forms that our distant ancestors ate. GMOs are a more accurate and precise way to generate better, safer, healthier food products.

  • James

    What bothers me most about GMO’s, and why I avoid them, isn’t so much the heath issue, but the various legal issues. Monsanto has been known to sue farmers for violating their patents because seeds from GMO crops have cross pollinated with their non-Monsanto crops. Never mind that the wind will spread the seeds to neighboring farms… Effectively forcing neighboring farms to become Monsanto farms.

    Further, Monsanto has required farmers to purchase new seeds each year, and not use seeds generated from their crops. So, once forced to Monsanto due to seeds distributed naturally from their GMO crops, these farmers are forced to pay a regular fee for new seeds.

    This is evil — and why I avoid GMO crops.

  • sirwired

    Apart from the concerns with GMO’s themselves (I think the fears are pretty much groundless), the law overriding state law is a good idea.

    A patchwork of 50 state laws, given the nationwide distribution of so many food products, indeed makes little sense. Food labeling and safety standards have traditionally been federally regulated; why should GMO’s be regulated at the state level?

    Federal law overriding state law is not exactly unheard of: Drug regulation, telcom regulation, interstate travel, vehicle safety, etc. It’s not as if this would be some special and unprecedented carve-out for agribusiness.

  • Jonathan Woodman

    Essentially, GMO foods are already labeled. If it doesn’t have a label that says “Non GMO,” it has GMO in it.

  • Joe Farrell

    First off, whats a GMO? A dog is a GMO. ALL corn, even organic heirloom varieties, are GMO. ALL Tomatoes, again, even heirloom varieties, are GMO. ALL strawberries have been for 2000 years.

    Like Harvey says, you can take this way too far- and if you insist on all original crops, billions of people are going to die. What is your choice now?

  • Joe Farrell

    so technically, you are against Monsanto business practices – not the food itself.

  • Regina Litman

    What are the “Big Five”? Living in the Philadelphia area, the only meaning of this phrase that I know is Villanova, Temple, Penn, St. Joseph’s, and LaSalle, even though I am not a fan of college basketball.

    Yes, I know I could Google this, but I wanted to get the message to the author that not everyone knows every buzzword.

    Thanks in advance for this answer.

  • John McDonald

    the blind leading the blind !!!
    This story must be from the movie Dumber & Dumber #3.
    The biggest genetic modifier is nature itself.
    So let’s get this straight. Anti GMO advocates, say it’s alright for nature to genetically modify something, but not man ?
    Isn’t skin cancer caused by the sun, by GM ?
    What are you going to do ask governments to ban the sun ?

  • Alan Gore

    We label foods for ingredients to which certain people might be sensitive. My wife is diabetic, so we carefully read the labels to avoid sugar. Some people have to avoid sodium or are allergic to peanuts. ‘Gluten-free’ may be a huge nonsensical fad for the ordinary person, but a small cohort of individuals, those with celiac disease, are under doctors’ orders to avoid this natural grain component.

    But genetic engineering is not an ingredient, but a process by which food is made. Traditionally we have modified species by genetic hybridization, cross-breeding for the traits we want and culling the plants or animals not exhibiting the trait. It’s how we made wolves into poodles.

    Genetic engineering means using today’s techniques to tweak single genes to do exactly what we want, while leaving the rest of the genome of that species alone, getting us to the desired traits much more precisely than before. We are about to start using GM technology on human embryos, to knock out genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs and cystic fibrosis. Early in the twentieth century there was a fad for using the traditional hybridization technique on humans, forbidding people with genetic diseases from bearing children. That was called eugenics, and we all know where that led.

    Now the same hippie mothers who won’t vaccinate their children are trying to get GM banned, because it’s new and “scientific” and therefore they’re afraid of it. Don’t let them slap their silly labels on our food.

  • Alan Gore

    The villain of that piece is our broken patent system, not genetic engineering. The anti-GMO movement has also trashed fields of golden rice, a GMO that will give developing-world children the vitamin A that is lacking in their diets, even though golden rice is not patented and has noting to do with Monsanto.

  • jae1

    Most commercial hybrids are patented (unless they’re so old that the patent has expired), and carry identical restrictions regarding seed-saving, cross-pollinating, use or sale of second generation seed, etc. In fact, since most won’t breed true in the field, large-scale commercial farmers generally buy seed every year regardless of the GMO status of the crop. It has little to do with the policies of Monsanto or any of the other developers of GMO crops. The farmers would truly have no guarantee of continuing to get the characteristics they’d paid for if they didn’t purchase seed annually. Even the various heirloom seeds, all of which are simply old or wild-produced hybrids, don’t necessarily breed true–almost any backyard gardener can tell you of their experience with tomatoes that didn’t come out as expected when they’d saved seed from the previous year’s crop.

  • Fishplate

    Two days ago, a post to this site told us that a label stating “organic” was essentially meaningless, under the headline of “Scammy Labels”. Now we are told that this label is the only thing between us and genetic mutation.

  • sirwired

    This is not true. Many companies simply haven’t bothered to label the non-GMO-ness of their products. Probably because GMO varieties are simply not available for so many different foodstuffs; there’s no such thing as a GMO carrot, GMO popcorn, GMO meat or poultry, GMO Sugar, etc. A “GMO-free” label is simply meaningless in those cases.

  • JewelEyed

    Consider the source…

  • Gina C.

    Good piece, overall. But the statement “there is no documented health risk to eating genetically engineered foods” is totally wrong.

    That’s a lie the GMO business and their government “regulators” have inoculated the public with.

    The benefits from GMO go to the corrupt GE industry and their associated profiteering government pawns such as the FDA but surely not to the public. It only does according to this cartel’s hype and propaganda.

    What everyone should know is that there has been a long history of ignoring and suppressing the real dangers of GMO foods which are saturated with pesticides from the biotech industry.

    One of the earliest cases that has demonstrated that fact is the infamous tryptophan disaster of 1989 where the FDA ignored the warnings of their own scientists about the real risks of GMOs, simply to protect the business interests of the GMO industry, which they’ve been colluding with for decades – see

    The government-biotech industry cartel has the average person believing that they’re protecting their health. Yet, lying about real facts, denying real facts, or minimizing or ignoring real facts is not protecting or helping the public, it’s deceiving the public. So it is obvious that the public has right to know whether they eat GMOs or not. They should mandate given the criminal environment.

  • Éamon deValera

    There is no danger from genetically modified foods. Golden Rice the first widely used genetically modified foods provides vitimin A to persons who would otherwise be vitimin A deficient and has been doing so for decades. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives have been saved because of Golden Rice.

    The hysteria is unfounded, there is no grand conspiracy, and a patchwork of regulations is not helpful to the consumer.

  • Éamon deValera

    I see that Golden Rice had already been covered. Keep up the good work.

  • Éamon deValera

    I had gluten free turkey breast on my sandwich today. I’ve got to buy some new shoes this week, I’m going to look for gluten free leather.

    People who truly need gluten free foods know which foods might contain gluten – at least one would hope. Meat is not one of those foods.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. I haven’t really done all that much research myself as to whether or not I like GMO’s or will or won’t buy products with them (though I cede I most likely already do), but I agree that the consumer should have the information to make a decision – should they choose to do so. I don’t think it’s right at this point, until or unless proven otherwise to ban them, until there is some provable harmful health risk- but I do think you should have the right to know that they are there. I also agree that given the complexity of dealing with multiple states rules on labeling, I think one unified national standard to be used. I am not the biggest fan of increasing federal oversight and reducing state oversight, but in matters like this, I think the practical reality of having one or several different labels to meet the varying state laws, would be not only expensive, but probably make it harder to understand the data – thus undercutting the whole labeling mandate to begin with.

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