Should we require that GMO foods be labeled?

Requiring GMO crops to be labeled is the latest sally of the anti-GMO movement. But does it make sense to label crops all research says are completely harmless?

You probably have gotten E-mails or seen other propaganda from the Just Label It movement to label crops if that contain any genetically modified organisms. And this isn’t just coming from the tinfoil hat crowd. Many of the supporters of labeling are sincere and mostly intelligent people. A recent article on avoiding GMOs illustrates this. But for the most part these opponents are not trained in science and are exhibiting fear of the unknown.

The main problem is that there is absolutely no peer-reviewed science to indicate that genetically modified crops are in any way harmful. There are hundreds of studies showing that GM crops are completely safe. Most major international bodies and scientific organizations have declared GM crops harmless. Here is part of the statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Several current efforts to require labeling of GM foods are not being driven by any credible scientific evidence that these foods are dangerous, AAAS said. Rather, GM labeling initiatives are being advanced by “the persistent perception that such foods are somehow ‘unnatural,’” as well as efforts to gain competitive advantages within the marketplace, and the false belief that GM crops are untested.

If there is no safety issue, then why is in important to label GM crops? This is as much a philosophical issue as a legal one. If you have unproven concerns about a product, do you have a right to compel legislation to label that product as different when no such differences have ever been demonstrated?
The slogan of the GM labeling crowd is “I have the right to know what I’m putting in my mouth.” But do you? If the product contains, say trans-fats, which science has consistently shown are bad for you, you do have the right to know if they are in a product.

But if the food contains GM ingredients (and most US foods do) do you have the right to compel manufacturers to go to the expense of labeling them? It is rather like asking whether the combine was painted red or green. No one believes that this matters and if I insist on knowing the answer, no one can probably tell me.

Ethicist Chris Macdonald took on this question in the Food Ethics Blog. He also wrote on whether companies should be required to label GM foods. From an ethical standpoint, he concludes that you do not have the right to compel companies to label foods with what are essentially meaningless labels. He also has written an academic paper with Melissa Whellams for Biotechethics. Same conclusion.

The GM labeling partisans also then argue that they don’t understand your resistance. “It’s just a label.” This is plainly a naïve response. Compelling companies to label products has a significant expense associated with it. And since their stated goal is the eventual banning of what we know are absolutely safe products, this would have a significant effect on commercial farming and food manufacture that would undoubtedly increase both production expenses and carbon footprints. (GM crops with either Roundup Ready genes have a lower carbon footprint, since less tilling is required.)

So the conclusion is, you do not have the right to compel labeling when there is no demonstrated harm. And after nearly 20 years of GM crop development, no such harm has ever been shown.

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