A bounty of information is available in our grocery store aisles, with product labels proclaiming foods to be organic, locally sourced, free-range, gluten-free or all of the above. U.S. shoppers know whether their dairy was produced with growth hormones and how much saturated fat comes with a roll of cookie dough. Yet, there is one thing they don't know about their food: whether it was genetically modified.
Around the world, 64 countries require food producers to disclose such information on product labels, allowing the consumer to discern between foods grown traditionally and those derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO). But in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration declared GMO products "substantially equivalent" to foods grown from traditional methods, and requires no special labeling.
This year, America's food industry plans a major push on Capitol Hill to rewrite regulations for a national standard on voluntary GMO food labeling, which would preclude state-based efforts to pass such a requirement. Essentially, the industry would like the government to enact something like the former Defense of Marriage Act, but for food labeling rather than gay marriage.
What's more, they also want the right to call their GMO products "natural." Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 U.S. food manufacturers, says the nation's food-labeling laws provide consumers with all the information they need to make good choices, and that adding irrelevant information on labels would only confuse them. "[Our] approach will eliminate consumer confusion, avoid an unnecessary and confusing 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws, and provide consumers with confidence in the safety of the food supply," Kennedy told Newsweek.
A patchwork of state-level regulation is exactly what industry opponents had hoped to create, as they believe federal regulators side with the GMO lobby on labeling. The food industry spends some $40 million annually to lobby Congress, which has bought it an influential spot at the table - the GMA wrote the discussion draft of a labeling bill that many believe will pass this year.
Already, 80 percent of processed foods contain GMO ingredients. While science overwhelmingly supports the safety of the technology, critics of Monsanto and other GMO producers say the products haven't been tested long enough to know there's no downside. And the public remains unsure: 93 percent of Americans say they support labeling, according to a poll last year by The New York Times.
Patty Lovera, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch, tells Newsweek, "The government's response to the consumer's call for GMO labeling has been appalling," but she believes this popular support will win out over the Grocery Manufacturers Association and their allies.
Sensing an opportunity, several congressmen met on Capitol Hill this month with representatives from more than 200 natural food producers to urge President Barack Obama to fulfill a campaign promise from 2007. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama seized on a popular issue, saying food labels should "let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying."
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, signed a group letter to Obama urging him to enact the regulation by executive action. "Labeling genetically engineered food really should be a no-brainer," she told Newsweek. "This isn't about banning or regulating [GMO] food, it's just making sure that Americans know what they are buying. Who can be against that?"
Not Ben & Jerry's. The Vermont ice cream company joined other "natural" food producers, including Nature's Path and Stonyfield Farms, in supporting the call for regulation. "We believe it's inevitable that the United States will soon join the 64 other nations that require labeling," company spokeswoman Elizabeth Stewart told Newsweek. "If consumers in China, Kazakhstan, and Ethiopia have a right to whether they are buying [GMO] food, so do Americans."
The important question behind this argument is: Are GMOs safe? With no equivocation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science says yes. "Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from [GMO] crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques," the group concluded last year. A review of the scientific literature, published last year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, likewise finds no safety problem. And the World Health Organization says the technology is "not likely" to threaten human health.
In fact, in some cases GMO foods might offer the consumer an improvement on nature. Taking refuge in Canada from Europe's harsher regulatory environment, British researchers from the John Innes Centre say they're harvesting a bountiful crop of purple tomatoes. By introducing a new gene, scientists imbued the common tomato with the anti-inflammatory healing power of the blackberry, perhaps even slowing the progression of cancer.
With innovations like these, and with the scientific community on the other side of the picket line, the fight against GMO foods may already be lost. In just a couple of years, Obama's campaign promise may be long forgotten as grocery stores sell fresh and delicious juice from the purple tomato. Last May, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strike a proposed amendment from the farm bill requiring GMO food labeling. Similarly, voters in California and Washington narrowly rejected referenda to require labeling. And among the 26 states who've considered food labeling, only two have passed a law: Connecticut and Maine. But Connecticut's law only goes into effect if any "combination of Northeast states where together reside at least 20 million" people also adopts similar laws, while Maine's version requires that five neighboring states follow suit. Neither has happened.
This week, lawmakers in New Hampshire decided not to require labeling, which will affect other states. State Representative Tracy Emerick, R-Rockingham, says lawmakers were satisfied by a preponderance of scientific evidence supporting GMO food safety, generally agreeing that regulation of the food system belongs in Washington, D.C.
Besides, the free market has already begun to clarify any confusion, Emerick told Newsweek. "I believe market forces will and are moving manufacturers to label 'non-GMO' products to satisfy persons who are concerned with the issue." In other words, any consumer looking for non-GMO foods should look for a non-GMO label.