Labels for GMO Foods


Today, the editors of Scientific American published a short argument against the special labeling of genetically modified (GM) food products.

It's worth a read. I think this is a really difficult topic, because two strong values are in conflict: consumer transparency and the practical application of scientific knowledge.

On one hand, it's hard to argue against more information for the consumer -- transparency is pretty much always a good thing. But on the other hand, as the article points out, requiring GMOs to adopt special labels when other types of foods don't have to do the same seems to signal that there's something inherently and uniquely wrong with GMOs, which creates an unnecessary stigma.

Think about how this works out in practice: At the market or the grocery store, you pick up a food product that has a special label saying it's produced with GM crops. If you don't know anything about the issue (let's say you haven't read the official statements from the AAAS, the World Health Organization and others explaining that GM foods are no more dangerous in general than non-GM foods), you start to worry if this special label means the food is bad for your health. Having no other information, you side with caution and choose a different product. Now, there might be all kinds of facts about how the other product was produced that you would object to if you knew (for example, maybe it's produced by workers who aren't paid a fair wage), but none of those facts require a special label from the FDA unless, as the AAAS statement linked above points out, "the absence of the information provided poses a special health or environmental risk." By adding a special label for products produced through genetic modification, the government would effectively be suggesting that GMOs are somehow dangerous.

Now, I think people should have a right to know as much about the products they consume as possible. In an ideal world, we would be able to know the entire biography of every single product we take home. It's just unfortunate that this one technology has been singled out for stigma without good scientific reason. So I think it's a tough call.