Currently, food companies in the United States are not required to label products that contain GMOs, but some do. Randall Benton File photo
Currently, food companies in the United States are not required to label products that contain GMOs, but some do. Randall Benton File photo

Health & Fitness

The GMO food labeling debate: What is it all about?


August 12, 2015 02:12 PM

The fight over the labeling of genetically modified organisms hits close to home for many in the heartland, where U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo from Kansas is trying to block states and local governments from mandating the labeling of GMO products.

So what is this debate about GMOs all about?

A report last year by global marketing company NPD Group showed that while more than half of U.S. consumers expressed concerns about GMOs, many couldn’t describe what GMOs are. Here’s a quick primer.

What is a GMO anyway?

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A genetically modified organism – GMO – is a plant or animal with genes altered by science. Biotechnology in plant agriculture involves making a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism – such as resistance to disease, insects or drought – and using it in another plant.

Are GMOs bad?

It depends on whom you ask.

GMO opponents argue that the long-term effects on health are unknown and that some scientists believe they cause allergies and other illnesses in humans.

Proponents pushing for GMO products to be labeled have focused their argument not so much on the GMOs but on consumers’ right to know.

The biotech industry says that genetically engineered crops are good for the environment because farmers have to use less pesticides on them and that they have the potential to solve the global hunger crisis.

For instance, a genetically modified variety of rice – a staple for nearly half the world – being developed in the Philippines has been altered to include beta carotene, which proponents say could be critical for nutrient-starved people in developing countries.

How is this different from what farmers have been doing for eons – selectively breeding crops to make them more tasty, disease resistant and bountiful?

In a special series on GMOs, Grist food writer Nathanael Johnson points out that while selective breeding practices rely on natural reproductive processes of the organisms, genetic engineering, or GE, involves adding foreign genes that wouldn’t occur in nature.

What does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say?

The FDA, which regulates the safety of food that comes from genetically engineered plants, says GMOs must meet the same safety requirements as foods that come from traditionally bred plants.

GMO advocates say that genetically modified products are the most researched and tested agricultural products in history and point to studies showing that GMOs do not cause allergies, cancer, infertility or a host of other diseases.

Am I already eating GMOs?

You probably are unless your diet consists only of fresh, unprocessed foods that have been labeled non-GMO or certified organic.

In the United States corn (field and sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash are all grown from GMO seeds.

Experts say that up to 80 percent of processed foods in the United States have been genetically modified.

In an article about five surprisingly genetically modified foods, Mother Jones points out that sweet corn was GMO-free until 2012 when Monsanto rolled out its first genetically engineered harvest. Shoppers, though, successfully petitioned Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s not to carry it.

“Like it or not, genetically modified foods are almost impossible to avoid,” Sheldon Krimsky, adjunct professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts Medical School in Boston, told WebMd in June.

Currently no meat, fish, or egg products are genetically engineered, though one company is waiting for government approval to bring its fast-growing salmon to market.

How long have GMOs been around?

Scientists conducted the first trials on genetically engineered food in the late 1980s. The headline-making “Flavr Savr” tomato was the first GMO approved for human consumption in 1994. Researchers for a California biotech company called Calgene found a way to inhibit a protein-producing gene in a tomato that makes it get squishy.

Though weak harvests, costly shipping and consumer indifference killed the newfangled tomato after just three years, the door was thrown open as biotech companies moved on to genetically engineer corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.

So why the label debate?

Currently, food companies in the United States are not required to label products that contain GMOs. That’s the great debate.

Vermont was the first state to label foods in May 2014. This year, state lawmakers across the country introduced 101 GMO bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Fifteen became law. Of those, nine urged science-based data to be used in future GMO regulation and four related to labeling practices.

Many of the bills arose out of constituent concerns. The public overwhelmingly supports the idea of labeling GMOs.

In 2013, a New York Times poll revealed that 93 percent of Americans surveyed say that foods containing genetically engineered or modified ingredients should be identified. Three-fourths of Americans worried about the effects of GMOs on their health.

Biotech companies and the food industry argue that such labeling would be expensive and pointless because genetically engineered foods have been declared safe for human consumption.

Is there a way to tell now whether a food contains GMOs?

Yes. Some companies are already labeling their products “non-GMO.” And products with the “USDA Organic label” are required by law not to use GMOs in their production.

Some restaurant chains have rolled out GMO-free menu items, such as the tofu used in Chipotle’s sofritas. The Denver-based company has been quietly taking GMO products off its menu to be consistent with the company’s “overall belief in food with integrity,” the company’s Chris Arnold told The Kansas City Star last year.

There’s also a voluntary system used by some retailers, developed by the Produce Marketing Association, to mark GMO and organic produce, according to

SKU Produce Look-Ups – PLUs – that start with the number 8 designate GM produce. PLUs that begin with the number 9 are organic produce.

For example, the PLU code for a standard yellow banana is 4011; an organically grown standard yellow banana would be labeled 94011.