Genetically modified organisms: Put a label on it?

Recently passed regulations requiring mandatory labeling on products containing genetically modified materials could have lasting effects on many aspects of the agriculture industry.

On July 29, 2016, a bill was signed into law requiring labels on all food products containing any bioengineered or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). According to Food Safety News, the new regulation, known as the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, sets the base for labeling genetically modified products. The incoming Secretary of Agriculture (yet to be named) will oversee the effort to develop more exact regulations and information on product labeling within the next two years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to ensure the process of creating labeling standards is open and transparent, according to an article on its website. The department is creating a timeline that will allow consumers to understand the process of labeling products and why it is being done.

Opinions vary on whether mandatory labeling is necessary, but according to the USDA, the new law is designed to “increase consumer confidence and understanding of the foods they buy, and avoid uncertainty for food companies and farmers.”

Consumers are demanding to know exactly what is in their food. Because of this, some states began creating their own laws requiring labels on food products containing GMOs sold within the state. These various laws, from state to state, could cause extra costs to food producers and processors.

Richard Fordyce, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, stated, “The GMO labeling bill signed into law in July was necessary legislation in order to ensure a national standard for labeling was set and to avoid a patchwork of state laws which would have been unreasonable for food companies to comply with. Had this legislation not been passed, food companies could have incurred extra costs to label items according to each state’s law and those costs could have trickled down to consumers and resulted in higher food prices.”

The impact of GMO labels on consumer purchasing decisions remains to be seen. Shannon Johnson, a consumer and student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said when deciding between a GMO and a non-GMO food item, the cost of the product is more important to her.

“I would buy the cheaper one of the two,” Johnson said.

Some consumers agree with Johnson, but others are not as open-minded when it comes to modifying the genetics of the food they are eating. According to a study conducted by Consumer Reports National Research Center, over 70 percent of Americans said they would prefer to not have GMOs in their food. This same study showed over 90 percent of Americans would like for foods containing GMOs to be labeled. There are various reasons for the preference of labels, although studies have shown genetic modification of foods does not cause any health issues.

“Historically, United States label requirements have been enacted to alert consumers of potential risks; however, that is not the case with this legislation,” Fordyce said. “Hundreds of studies have proven that GMOs are as safe to grow and consume as other foods. In fact, there is scientific consensus on this issue, with support from organizations including the World Health Organization, the European Commission, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Just a couple of months ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a study that concluded the genetically engineered crops appear to be safe to eat and do not harm the environment.”

Consumer knowledge and understanding of GMOs has the ability to affect many other aspects of the industry that people may not consider. Beverly Henke, an agricultural risk management advisor for Advanced Trading, Inc., is faced with the task of closely monitoring the markets of many agricultural products.

“Even perception can affect the markets,” Henke said.

Depending on if consumers are leaning toward products that have been genetically modified or not, different pressures can be put on the markets. When consumers have the mindset that foods that have been genetically modified are bad for them, the market for non-GMO crops experiences an increase in demand. This in turn can cause a negative shift in demand of crops that have been genetically modified. Perception has a large effect on the markets within the agriculture industry.

The law requiring labeling of bioengineered foods will provide consumers the opportunity to make informed choices while also standardizing the regulations from state to state. How consumers decide to spend their food purchasing dollars and the impact on the industry, as a whole, will become clear in the coming years.

Holly Harlan

About the Author Holly Harlan

I am a freshman at the University of Missouri majoring in science and agricultural journalism. My love for the agriculture industry began in the small town of Salisbury, Missouri. This small, farming community gave me the opportunity to grow up with an appreciation for farming, because it was all around me. I am beyond excited to have the opportunity to write for CAFNR Corner Post this semester, so I can get more writing experience and continue to learn more about the agriculture industry. I’m ready to take on this semester, and I can’t wait to see what adventures await me here at the Zou!