Do you think food-labeling requirements should be expanded to include whether a product contains genetically modified food?

New York City

The Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization have all declared that genetically-modified foods are safe. These products have played an enlarging role in the world food supply for about two decades. (For example, most corn grown in the U.S. has been modified to withstand pests, thus reducing the need for chemical control).

But a significant number of wary consumers, in an abundance of caution, want to avoid these foods. Some food companies who market to them would like expanded labeling, too. It would help them compete better with traditional grocers and producers because they could label their own products free of biotech ingredients while other companies would be forced to add “contains GMO” (genetically modified organisms) to their labels.

Yes, the GMO-free companies can include this information right now on the packaging, where it can be seen easily, but an industry-wide labeling requirement would lead more consumers into thinking biotech foods are unsafe, which would boost the sales of GMO-free foods.

What to do? I recognize the valid arguments for mandatory labeling. Most people, not just the cautious consumers, are in favor of labeling in general. Philosophically, I am, too. And even though a labeling requirement may worry many consumers, that’s not a given. Few people think ingredients (vitamins, fiber, etc.) already on labels are harmful, yet the information is still mandated. And meat is not unhealthful, but if people don’t want to eat it, it’s good that they can read a label and see if a product contains meat. Many other countries already mandate that labels contain some GMO information.

For a while, I think labels will do more harm than good. They will worry consumers and drive them to alternative, often more expensive, products unnecessarily. Also, ordinary grocers and manufacturers of perfectly safe foods (along with farmers) will be hurt for no good reason. But in the long run, consumer education should solve that problem. I believe that the authorities responsible for the labeling–which I think will happen–have the moral responsibility to make sure that the public is thoroughly educated, and that education will include the schools.

Nature has been in the business of genetic modification since the beginning of life on Earth. But not with a goal in mind. Genetic engineering of food has a vast potential to improve human health, in addition to reducing hunger all over the world. Work in this field is just getting started.