After months of public input and deliberation, the USDA has released their proposal for labels on genetically modified foods. The proposed guidelines are open for public comment until July 3rd, and would go into effect in 2020.
What is on the Horizon
The new guidelines don’t use the language “genetically modified,” however. The USDA wants to move away from that term because it’s been the center of much debate, and is freighted with associations that might unfairly put off a shopper from choosing products whose genetic material has been tweaked. The new appropriate language is “bioengineered,” or BE; it’s meant to sidestep the somewhat charged associations of GMO.
Foodmakers will have a few different options for how they can label bioengineered products under the proposed guidelines. One label is a badge-like circle that says “BE” in stylized letters
A second option is putting text on the packaging that states outright the food contains one or more bioengineered ingredients.
“Excluding highly processed GE foods would mean that consumers would be wrongly left in the dark about thousands of GE products,” said Bill Freese, The Center for Food Safety’s Science Policy Analyst. “These products, as well as those from newer forms of genetic engineering, must be subject to mandatory labelling if this rule is to be meaningful.”
A third option is putting a QR code on the packaging which can be scanned with a smartphone to call up more information about the product.
The QR code option has not been entirely well received. About a third of the population in the United States doesn’t have access to a smartphone. Those people are more likely to be poor, elderly, and rural – people who already are already likely to have limited choices when it comes to food at the supermarket, and who thus might be further disadvantaged by labels that require expensive technology like a smartphone just to read.
To Label or Not to Label
The question of whether or not to label genetically modified food is complicated and the subject of much debate. So far, decades of research and thousands of studies have not yet shown that selectively modifying the genes of corn, soybeans, or rice causes health problems in those who consume those crops.
“This rulemaking presents several possible ways to determine what foods will be covered by the final rule and what the disclosure will include and look like,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “We are looking for public input on a number of these key decisions before a final rule is issued later this year.”
Advocates of GMO crops have pushed back against the possibility of labels for food that’s genetically modified. Because negative health outcomes have not been demonstrated in the scientific literature, they say, it’s unfair to label the food as genetically modified. Labelling may discourage consumers from buying genetically modified products, or imply that there is risk where current science suggests there is none.
GMO skeptics say that we don’t yet have enough data to know whether modifying crops can produce long-term health effects and should maintain our skepticism. Labelling, the argument goes, is a neutral good; it provides the consumer with more information, which is always a good thing. People should be able to make informed decisions about what they’re buying, and putting labels on genetically modified crops makes those decisions more informed.
What is Being Labeled?
Not all products derived from genetically modified foods are subject to the new regulations. According to the Genetic Literacy Project, crops with small genetic changes that could be achieved through selective breeding or natural mutation are exempt from the proposed regulations. The same is true for products whose principal ingredient isn’t GMO, but which might contain small amounts of other ingredients derived from genetically modified plants. So are byproducts like sugar and oil that are derived from genetically modified plants but contain little or no genetic material after they’ve been subject to processing.
That measure is also somewhat controversial. Organizations who are critical of bioengineered foods, like the Center for Food Safety, have claimed that excluding highly processed products from the new labeling requirements will leave consumers unfairly in the dark. Regardless of the technology used or the amount of processing applied afterwards, they say, ingredients or foods whose genes have been tweaked should have labels saying as much.
Proponents of bioengineered foods might say that there’s much more distance between coconuts and oil extracted from them than there is between an unmodified fruit and one that’s had a single genetic sequence tinkered with. The gist of this argument is that natural processes do much more to disturb DNA than selective gene-editing techniques do.
It goes something like this: the division of cells in the genome of any given living thing introduces transcription mistakes, duplications, omissions, re-arranging, and other errors into the DNA. Chromosomes are bombarded with cosmic radiation over time, which can create rips, tears, and holes in the genetic record by smashing into it at scales too small to properly imagine. All of these changes are arguably greater, and freighted with the possibility of harm, than the precisely guided selective editing that’s achieved through techniques like CRISPR.
If you follow that line of thinking, it might seem like we need a warning label for every living thing. Most of those changes happen to “junk DNA” – the vast stretches of the genetic code that don’t seem to serve any purpose. It’s relatively rare for damage or a copying error to affect useful genetic instructions space out through the filler. Because deliberate bioengineering is targeted, it always is focused on active and useful genes. Thus, the capacity for unintentional consequences is greater than that of random mutation.
The Great Debate Isn’t Over Yet
The debate over the safety of bioengineered foods, and appropriate ways to label them, isn’t about to end. The comment period for the USDA’s proposed labelling guidelines is, however. If you have something to say about them, reach out before public comment closes on July 3rd.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)