I grow my own fruits and vegetables for all sorts of reasons. Growing food is fun, rewarding, saves money, and adds amazing taste and beauty into my life. And, for health concerns, I know exactly where my food came from and what went into producing it.

So how come I can’t have the right to know what’s in the food I buy in the store? That’s the goal of the Just Label It campaign, which last month submitted a record-breaking 1.1 million signatures to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in favor of labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods. And in polls by ABC, MSNBC, NPR, the Washington Post, Consumer Reports and others, consistently more than 90 percent of Americans surveyed favor labeling of genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients.

The FDA response so far? “We haven’t made a decision yet.”

Seems labeling our food would be simple. After all, we already list the ingredients and nutrition information. Well, as always, there are two sides to the story.

The reasons for labeling are pretty obvious:

  • More than 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.
  • Consumers have valid health, environmental and philosophical concerns about GE crops.
  • For religious or ethical reasons, many Americans want to avoid eating animal products, including animal DNA.
  • Many Americans are concerned about the negative effects of GMO use on the agricultural economy and small-scale and organic farming.
  • Surveys show a wide majority of Americans support mandatory labeling.
  • At least 21 countries and the European Union have established some form of mandatory labeling.
  • Mandatory labeling will allow consumers to identify food products they want to avoid.

So why not label? Well, here are some of the arguments on the other side.

  • Labels on GE food imply possible bad health effects, which are inconclusive.
  • Labeling of GE foods will add cost to foods.
  • Consumers will get less choice if retailers eliminate GE products because of perceived consumer aversion.
  • Consumers who want non-GE food already have the option to purchase certified organic foods.
  • The food system cannot currently accommodate segregation of GE and non-GE products.
  • No GE products currently on the market or under review contain animal genes.
  • There would be several issues to resolve: what technologies are covered, what percent of a GE ingredient must be present to require a label, what about meat and dairy raised on GE crops, and how will regulators verify claims of GE/No GE?

Maybe you haven’t decided whether GMOs are good or bad. But, you don’t have to make a conclusion about GE foods to have an opinion on labeling our foods. Even if you believe GMOs are the key to feeding the world, we still should have labeling. There are enough concerns about GMOs that consumers should be given the right to decide for themselves. And the logistical hurdles can be overcome. The European Union, Japan, Australia, Russia and even China have all figured it out. They are among the countries requiring GMO labeling. That means U.S. GMO products sold there are also labeled. I guess we have already figured it out, too.

If the federal government won’t act, the states may lead the way. Here in Vermont, our lawmakers are considering legislation to require GMO labeling. Unfortunately, Monsanto is already threatening to sue Vermont if the legislation passes, a battle our little state may not have the means to fight. That’s right, Monsanto may sue us for requiring accurate information on labels. But don’t fret. California voters will consider a similar initiative this fall. Now that would be a fair fight.

Learn More

On our web site, read about how GMOs fit into the history and technology of plant breeding in the article How Genetic Engineering Differs from Traditional Plant Breeding.

If you want to learn more about the labeling issue, Colorado State University has a brief, balanced fact sheet called Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods. Some of that article was excerpted here.

If you are already convinced, please join the Just Label It campaign.

Jim Feinson, Gardener’s Supply