The U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing its own genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling program, according to recent reports from the Associated Press.
This really doesn’t surprise me, given the fact that for years activists have been pushing for a federal standard for foods made with genetically modified ingredients since statewide attempts at GMO labeling initiatives have proven largely unsuccessful and costly.
The Ag and food industries widely support a nationwide voluntary labeling process instead of a patchwork of individual mandatory state labeling efforts that can be confusing, expensive, and misleading since GMOs have been proven safe.
USDA’s certification is the first of its kind and would be voluntary – and companies would have to pay for it. If approved, the foods could carry a “USDA Process Verified” label along with a claim that they are free of GMOs.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the department’s plan this spring in a letter to employees, saying the certification was at the request of a “leading global company,” which he did not name.
Currently, there are no government labels that only certify a food as GMO-free.
Secretary Vilsack said the USDA certification is being created through the department’s Agriculture Marketing Service, which works with interested companies to certify the accuracy of the claims they are making on food packages, such as food labels that state “humanely raised” or “free of antibiotics.”
Companies pay the AMS to verify a claim, and if approved, they can market the foods with the USDA process verified label.
Fear-based non-GMO food marketing
I have written before in this space about how nonsensical the labeling of GMO crops tends to be. The marketing of non-GMO food is an opportunistic, fear-based phenomenon.
I can’t say it better than San Diego biologist Dr. Steve Savage, who writes for a blog called “Applied Mythology” and who contributes to my association’s blog site from time to time.
“If the goal (of food labeling) is to allow consumers to know more about their food, then why not transmit knowledge with context and perspective that would diminish, rather than promote, superstition?,” Savage asked.
He adds that activists fail to acknowledge that virtually all crops have been genetically modified in various ways for centuries and that transgenics, a particular means of genetic modification, have been the most carefully introduced and independently tested of all.
Savage continues, “Although all of the major scientific bodies around the world have affirmed the safety of GMO crops, the fear-based messaging has worked. This has created an up-selling opportunity in the food industry, and that kind of marketing is well served by the two word message, ‘Non-GMO.’
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The seller can tap in on all the emotive, doubt-sowing efforts to date without any potential confusion that would be created by knowing the full story. It’s effectively a ‘right to not know.’”
Furthermore in a Wall Street Journal article this month, the GMO labeling issue was debated with Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety taking a pro stance, and Dr. Nina Fedoroff of Penn State University arguing against labeling.
Kimbrell’s key points centered around these points - GMOs are materially different than their non-engineered counterparts, and the public has a right to know it; the cost of labeling would be negligible for the industry; GMO grown crops contain novel bacterial, viral and/or other DNA never seen in foods, often creating novel proteins that question their safety; and genetic engineering is not safer, nor more efficient nor more predictable than traditional breeding.
Dr. Fedoroff’s responses to those claims included these points.
- Today’s genetically modified crops look and are nutritionally exactly like their unmodified counterparts.
- To claim that a food derived from a commodity crop (e.g. corn, soybeans, canola) is free of modified ingredients requires keeping the crops separate from field to fork. It costs lots of money for separate storage, shipping, processing, and marketing.
- Concerning safety, a Stanford University study found that there was no significant nutritional difference between conventionally and organically grown crops. However, organic produce is 10 times more likely to be recalled for bacterial contamination than conventionally grown food. That’s a far worst track record than GMO crops, which have never caused a health problem in the more than 20 years of commercial availability.
- Lastly, GMO crops have increased yields by an average of more than 20 percent globally. Additionally, modern agricultural methods cause less genetic disturbance than the radioactivity and chemicals used for crop improvement in the 20th century. They even disturb genomes less than the conventional plant-breeding methods used for centuries.
Fedoroff sums it up, “The fact is, adding ‘genetically modified’ to a label suggests that the food might cause health problems. And that’s exactly what anti-GMO activists and organic food marketers would like you to think.”
USDA versus state options
Returning to the USDA’s involvement in the GMO labeling process, its current effort is very similar to what is being proposed in a House bill introduced earlier this year as an alternative to mandatory GMO labeling efforts around the country (H.R. 1599 passed the House Agriculture Committee on July 14).
Even though GMO labeling drives have been quashed at the polls in California, Colorado, and Oregon, there are currently more than 70 bills introduced in over 30 states to require GMO labeling or outright ban GMO foods.
Vermont became the first state to require the labeling in 2014, and that law will go into effect next year if it survives a legal challenge from the food industry.
I thought it would be fitting to wrap up this piece with some wisdom from Dr. Savage, who quotes the lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s classic song “Superstition” with a unique spin of his own on the marketing scam surrounding non-GMO products.
“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer … superstition ain’t the way.”
Now, imagine the good doctor’s lyrical spin.
“When you’re afraid of things you don’t understand, and pay more … superstition ain’t the way.”
Kinda has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?