Time to Label GMOs

January 19, 2014 | By | Comments (9)

Photo: elizaIO

It’s weird, isn’t it? I can buy a box of cereal, a bottle of soy sauce, a soft drink, or a loaf of bread and the labels will tell me almost everything there is in the product — salt, sugar, fat, cholesterol, caffeine, Vitamins, minerals, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, and emulsifiers. The FDA requires it. But there’s one thing the Feds say I don’t need to know — whether the food contains GMOs. And that makes me grumpy.

For the benefit of those who have been living inside a bank vault for the last 15 years (those gold coins are mine, by the way), GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism.You create one when you transfer a gene from the DNA of one organism to the DNA of a totally unrelated organism in order to achieve a desired result. For example, if I could somehow insert a cotton gene into my DNA so that I would grow denim instead of skin, I would be a GMO. And totally, totally cool.


Coming Soon! GMO Denim-Ready Skin! Much warmer and durable than natural skin! Photo: JMazzolaa

Hasn’t This Been Going On For Ages?
Some people don’t see what the big fuss is about. After all, haven’t farmers and horticulturists been mixing plant genes for centuries? Why, yes, they have indeed. In hybridization, they transfer the pollen of one plant to another plant of the same or different species to hopefully come up with a new color, better disease resistance, larger size, faster growth, etc. The key is that cross-pollination is a natural process that can occur with or without human intervention.

Not so with GM plants. To make them, you take a specific gene from a totally unrelated organism and insert it into the DNA of your target plant using either a device (a gene gun) or microorganisms (bacteria, viruses) to do the transfer. This is could NEVER happen on its own.

What Foods Contain GMOs?


Photo: joyosity

Sad to say, but thanks to Big Ag (especially one company whose name must not be mentioned), almost everything we eat and drink nowadays is a product of artificial genetic manipulation.Two prime examples are corn and soybeans, which received a gene from a bacterium to make them immune to the herbicide glyphosate (better known as Roundup). Roundup Ready crops don’t die when sprayed with Roundup, but the weeds competing with them do.


“Naturally Brewed.” Indeed. Photo: kattebelletje

Just about all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are Roundup Ready. So if you’ve enjoyed cereal, bread, beer, whiskey, grits, tofu, soy milk, or anything sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, you’ve been ingesting GMOs. And that cotton shirt you’re wearing? Probably made from genetically engineered Bt cotton, created when a gene from a bacterium was transferred into cotton to produce a toxin that kills cotton-pickin caterpillars.

So What’s the Problem?
Problems associated with GMOs can be divided into two groups — creation of superpests and human health concerns. Let’s discuss superpests first.

When farmers spray Roundup Ready crops for weeds or plant Bt cotton, they do so in a big way, not once, but over and over again. Inevitably, as we learned when the miracle insecticide DDT was used to “wipe out” malaria-causing mosquitoes during WWII, a few target pests don’t die, prove resistant, and reproduce to create a new population of resistant superpests. Today, Roundup-resistant superweeds such as horseweed, pigweed, and giant ragweed infest more than 60 million acres of U.S. cropland. And Bt-resistant pink bollworms are now attacking Bt cotton. Shocking!

When it comes to human health problems, the dangers are far less clear. People blame GMOs for headaches, allergies, ED, and lots of other maladies for which they can’t find a cause. But as yet, no reputable scientific study has proven a definitive link between GMOs and human illness. This doesn’t mean such evidence won’t surface. We just don’t have it yet.

But That’s Not the Point
The point is we have the right to know what’s in our food. If GMOs are indeed harmless to people, why is Big Ag and its Congressional lapdogs fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent GMO labeling? Here’s the answer.


Photo: Maura Teague

Money. Big Ag thinks that Americans won’t buy GMO food, so they’re desperate to hide the truth. But that’s just dumb. See, farmers use GMOs because these crops are cheaper to grow. That means food made from them is less expensive for consumers. If food labels contained GMO info, the vast majority of consumers would buy exactly the same products they do now. On the other hand, consumers unwilling to consume GMOs could be given the choice to buy “premium” non-GMO food at a more expensive price — just the way organic foods are marketed today.

Big Ag only needs to examine the near-death experience of the U.S. auto industry if it doubts this. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Detroit built cheap, crappy, unsafe cars. It fought every proposed safety feature — seat belts, side-view mirrors, air bags, and anti-lock brakes. Only price and profits mattered.

But then a funny thing happened. It turned out that consumers placed safety and reliability ABOVE price. They stopped buying crappy, unsafe American cars in favor of better, safer foreign cars. And they were willing to pay more for safety. Today, U.S. automakers trumpet safety as much as performance when selling cars. And they’re making lots of money.

So let’s get GMO labeling on food. It’s the right thing to do. And we have a right to know.


  1. Steve Bender

    As far as the cause of bee colony collapse, I can assure you that the government IS trying to find an answer, because honeybees are vital to this country’s food supply. The problem is that just when scientists think they’re found the answer, new evidence pops up that puts it in doubt. For example, one of the first causes scientists latched onto was the systemic insecticide imidacloprid. Then they found that bees were being adversely affected by a particular fungicide. Now they think a virus might be involved. Indeed, it’s probably a combination of factors. And, of course, it doesn’t help matters that so many millions of acres of pastures and grasslands have been converted to GMO corn to make ethanol for fuel. The production of ethanol is also endangering monarch butterflies. In Grumpy’s opinion, making fuel from corn is one of the stupidest ideas this country has conjured up — which, of course, is why our government mandates it.

    January 31, 2014 at 10:08 am
  2. Steve Bender

    Aw, man, I want a third arm too!

    January 31, 2014 at 9:56 am
  3. Scott

    Well, Grumpy, I think we mostly agree then. I think you are a rare common sense voice on an issue where one side (anti-GMO) is very polarized and political and the other side is, for the most part, non-existent. I was anticipating that you were proposing a stand-alone label like many in that polarized camp are doing, which I think would send a misguided message. It probably does make Big Ag look bad to resist, but I think most of the labeling efforts have been geared toward this stand-alone label (outside of the ingredients section).

    As for the science, nothing ever gets a pass; nothing is ever “proven.” Findings are constantly challenged, questioned, and re-examined over time and this should continue to happen with GM foods as it should with everything. My point was that there is a huge (both quantity and duration) body of work showing null findings for GMO effects on humans and there is no reason to doubt that consensus any more than there is reason to doubt the scientific consensus on global warming or tobacco. But, now that you mention it, I am starting to grow a third arm since I started eating that 100% GMO corn-soy sausage…

    January 28, 2014 at 11:38 pm
  4. Steve Bender

    Let’s take one bone of contention off the table. As I wrote in the article, as of yet, there is no compelling, verifiable scientific evidence linking GMOs to human health problems. However, as genetic engineering is a rapidly evolving science, I am unwilling to give it a lifetime pass.

    I do not agree that labeling GMOs would necessarily require scary warning labels a la cigarette packs promising death or illness should GMOs be consumed. There need not be a warning at all, simply inclusion in the list of ingredients — “contains salt, water, sugar, GM corn, artificial color, and preservatives.”

    I do not agree that such GMO labeling would destroy Big Ag. It couldn’t, since too many foods already contain GMOs. Banning GMOs would only raise food and beverage prices above what the average consumer would be willing to pay. So labeling wouldn’t really affect what most people buy. It would just give them a choice they deserve.

    In the end, GMOs will be labeled, because that’s what consumers want. Big Ag can make themselves look bad by fighting it, like Detroit did by fighting seat belts and airbags, but eventually it’ll happen. So just do it now and stop looking like criminals with something awful to hide.

    January 23, 2014 at 3:05 pm
  5. Rita Hodkinson

    sorry , but why are all the bees in the area of corn growers dying, have we yet looked into air born residue from Genetic Modifications , none of the Gov.s are willng to deal with it.

    January 21, 2014 at 6:59 pm
  6. Scott

    Aren’t only organic foods labeled? Should we label all non-organic foods so that consumers are clear that they are not organically grown? That is essentially what you are arguing. And currently, foods that contain gluten or sugar or sodium or caffeine do not require a special label, so why should foods that contain GMO? Think of the menagerie of labels we would see cluttering our products telling us everything they *have* in them! Coffee — Warning! Contains caffeine! Beer — Warning! Contains gluten! For almost any ingredient where there is specialty demand to avoid it (e.g., rare disease, personal preference) but no general health risk, labeling denotes items that DO NOT contain it. In the case of peanuts, where there is an established severe health risk to certain individuals, the FDA requires labeling because there is a compelling public interest in helping those consumers avoid peanuts for health reasons. This is not analogous to GMOs though, because, again, there has not been a health risk established for anyone.

    The reason “Big Ag” is lobbying Congress is because of the reasons I outlined in my previous comment — how would you react if someone wanted to label your product with what amounts to a warning label when over 30 years of scientific evidence showed that there were no adverse health effects?

    If you are going to call out “Big Ag,” you have to be fair and look at the other side of the coin –the organic food industry stands to gain substantially from the stigma that GMO labeling will create. That’s why it is one of the primary financial and political drivers of the movement to mandate GMO labeling. Many people do not know that GMOs won’t harm them and will avoid it because there is a required label and required labels usually mean something bad.

    I also think that saying that the dangers of GMOs “are not clear” is disingenuous when there is such an established body of work supporting the conclusion that they do not harm human health. It is akin to saying that the scientific consensus on climate change or smoking is not clear. How many more decades of peer-reviewed research will it take to convince you? Let the science speak and stop letting politics get in the way.

    The much reviled corporation that starts with an M doesn’t own exclusive rights to genetically modifying food (in fact, almost all of their patents are going to expire soon) and the ways they use GM technology are but a small subset of the ways it can be used. Genetic modification is a technological advance that has the potential to significantly decrease the tons of pesticides we dump on the earth each year and add nutrients to the food of those blinded from lack of Vitamin A. It is time to open up our eyes and stop hijacking an entire technology to fight the M word.

    The middle way for labeling GMOs is designating them in the ingredients section of the label, not as a stand-alone warning label as many politically-motivated folks want to happen. This is a solution that I can get behind because I think we are entitled to know what is in our food. There is no need to unjustly stigmatize GMOs with a stand-alone label though — which, I think, is what you are suggesting. If it isn’t, well, I guess we agree!

    January 21, 2014 at 4:38 pm
  7. Steve Bender

    If Big Ag is not desperate to hide the truth, then why do they spend millions lobbying Congress to prevent labeling — to prevent people from knowing whether their products contain GMOs? Your argument that only non-GMO foods should be labeled is ridiculous. That’s like saying only peanut-free, caffeine-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, and sodium-free products should be labeled — and voluntarily at that! Come on.

    January 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm
  8. Carolyn

    Grumpy Gardener, Thank you.

    January 19, 2014 at 6:02 pm
  9. Scott

    Grumpy — if I may pick on you a bit, you make an argument for labeling that fails to mention that the FDA is the only federal agency with jurisdiction to mandate food labeling and it must be based on a known health risk. Right now, there are none known for GMO, so it would be not only unprecedented but would unfairly stigmatize GMO food as unhealthy for FDA to get involved (and you weakly allude to the scientific literature, but there are 30+ years of studies that overwhelmingly show no human health effects — see http://rameznaam.com/2013/04/28/the-evidence-on-gmo-safety/). “Big Ag” is not “desperate to hide the truth,” they just don’t want what will be perceived by consumers as a warning label on food that hasn’t been demonstrated to have negative health effects.

    You don’t need regulation for the market to work here. Non-GMO producers should voluntarily label and market their food as such and people can choose accordingly. In fact, this is what is happening today.

    January 19, 2014 at 3:26 pm

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