Sunday, March 4, 2012 (SF Chronicle)
Genetically modified labeling is topic of petition
Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers'
questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle.
E-mail your questions to email@example.com, with "Marion Nestle" in the
Q. I was just handed a petition for a ballot initiative to label
genetically modified foods. I signed it, but how come GM foods aren't
A. Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer. Practically everyone wants
them labeled. That's why the Committee for the Right to Know is collecting
signatures for a California ballot initiative to require it.
To say that food biotechnology industry supporters oppose this idea is to
understate the matter. They think the future of GM foods is at stake. They
must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would buy them.
If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but
itself. It has done little to inspire trust.
Labeling promotes trust. Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow
As I discuss in my book, "Safe Food," I was a member of the FDA's Food
Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of the first GM
tomato in 1994. As we learned later, the FDA was not asking our opinion.
It was using us to gather reactions to decisions already made.
For reasons in part scientific but largely in response to industry
pressures, the FDA decided that GM foods are inherently safe and no
different from foods produced through traditional genetic techniques.
Therefore, the thinking went, labeling would be unnecessary and mislead
people into thinking that the foods are different and somehow inferior.
Some of us strongly advised the FDA to reconsider. We thought the issue of
trust was paramount. If the products had some public benefit, people would
Consumers in Great Britain, for example, readily accepted tomato paste
prominently labeled GM, not least because the cans were priced below those
with conventional tomatoes.
But once Monsanto shipped GM corn to England without labeling it, and
placed advertisements in British newspapers hyping the benefits of GM
foods, the British public lost confidence. Sales declined and supermarket
chains no longer were willing to carry GM items.
Today, close to 90 percent of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the
United States are GM varieties. You must assume that ingredients made from
these foods are GM - unless the product is certified organic.
When researching "What to Eat," I knew that Hawaiian papayas engineered to
resist ringspot virus were the most likely candidates. I had some tested.
The conventional was GM. The organic was not. Without labels, you have no
way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.
Intelligent people can argue about whether GM crops are good, bad or
indifferent for agriculture, the environment and market economies, or
whether the products are safe. But one point is clear. The absence of
labeling cannot be good in the long run for business or American
Consumers have a right to know how foods are produced. Polls consistently
report that most people want GM labeling. Lack of labeling raises
uncomfortable questions about what the biotechnology industry and the FDA
are trying to hide.
The FDA already requires labels to identify food that is made from
concentrate or irradiated. At least 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere
require disclosure of GM ingredients. I've seen candy bar labels in
England with this statement: "Contains genetically modified sugar, soya
and corn." We could do this, too.
Last year, 14 states, including Oregon, New York and Vermont, introduced
bills to require GM foods to be labeled. None passed, but the campaign has
now gone national.
If you want a GM-label measure on the California ballot, go to
labelgmos.org. Just Label It is still collecting signatures. Signing these
petitions is an important way to exercise your democratic rights as a
citizen. Marion Nestle is the author of "Food Politics" and "What to Eat,"
among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and
public health department at New York University. She blogs at
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