Friedman Policy Update

The Debate Rages On: Genetically Modified Food Labeling

By Allison Knott, RD

As the debate for labeling genetically modified foods continues to heat up, Britt Lundgren, Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield Farms, presented a case for labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the Friedman student body during the weekly seminar in mid-February.  Stonyfield Farms has been a pioneer in the fight for a genetically modified food label, and its own Gary Hirshberg, helped to develop the “Just Label It” campaign in September of 2011.  After a nasty fight over the total deregulation of genetically engineered alfalfa, Stonyfield faced criticism for their support of what they had been told by the USDA would be only a partial deregulation of the crop.  When the decision was released by the USDA to allow for total deregulation, Lundgren described the response within the organic community as a circular firing squad, where members turned on one another.  Stonyfield, as well as other organic companies, were harshly criticized.  “It was an important lesson for the organic community.   You can have one of your own as the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and still the needs of the organic farmers were not acknowledged, and it started to set in that we don’t have a voice in Washington that we need to have,” said Lundgren.

After this confusion, the decision to start the “Just Label It” campaign was a natural next step.  “It is an effort by the organic community to move past this issue and allow the voices of the consumer to be heard,” explained Lundgren.  At its inception, there were approximately one dozen groups involved in the campaign.  In less than a year it has grown to include over 450 partner organizations. As Lundgren pointed out, not only organic companies support this movement.  “There are faith-based groups involved, health groups involved, and consumer groups involved, and we all agree on this central message that we have a right to know what is in our food, and this information should be on the label,” says Lundgren.

The debate over labeling genetically modified foods lies central to the benefit of the label.  Some argue that the label will only confuse the consumer and scare them into purchasing organic foods, which are by law not allowed to contain genetically modified ingredients.  Their main argument focuses on the lack of scientific information available to support the dangers of genetically modified foods.  As Monsanto, a producer of genetically modified seed, states on its website, “Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence.” 

However, those supporting the label argue that the genetically modified foods are putting consumers in danger of eating products that contain genetically modified ingredients that may be harmful.  Lundgren gives multiple examples supporting this idea.  She cited an instance of genetically modified corn containing an insecticide called BT and its potential for surviving the digestion process, as well as another type of genetically modified corn with a chemical component of Agent Orange, 2,4-D.  Lundgren further explains that, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, around 60% of the processed foods in America contain genetically modified ingredients.  Corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, and sugar beets are the main crops in production today that are genetically modified to either be herbicide tolerant or insect resistant.

Despite the differences remaining on both sides, the question remains: Does the consumer have the right to know?  As the labeling debate continues and as the “Just Label It” campaign gains ground, policy makers are sure to take notice.  If you want to be involved in this conversation, visit the Just Label It website, the Label GMOs website, or contact any of the partners of either group.  You can also contact your local representative to voice your opinions.  Furthermore, until the debate over a label is settled, you can make your own decision about consuming genetically modified foods.  If you prefer to avoid them, purchase organic products since they are required to be free of genetically modified ingredients.  However, if you are indifferent about genetically modified ingredients, then there is a 60% chance of consuming them from the everyday processed food you find on the shelf.

*Photo source 1; photo source 2

Allison is a second year Nutrition Communication student and registered dietitian.  She has a passion for communicating sound nutrition information to the public.  Follow her kitchen blunders, triathlon adventures, and read nutrition advice on her blog, Choices.Habits.Lifestyle

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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