Bloomberg View: There's No Harm in Knowing What You Eat

In praise of genetically modified food labels, minus the epithets
Illustration by Bloomberg View

On March 8, Whole Foods Market became the first major grocery chain to say it will require labeling of all foods on its shelves derived from genetically modified organisms. The pervasiveness of genetic modification is a well-kept secret. Ingredients in as much as 75 percent of packaged food have had their DNA altered to resist pests, tolerate excessive heat, or grow with less water. For two decades, seed companies, agricultural product makers, and food processors successfully rebuffed calls to let customers know this with labeling, and more than a decade ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that GM foods are indistinguishable from unaltered foods and that labeling was therefore unnecessary.

That policy is out of sync with those in Europe and Japan, and even China and Brazil have tighter requirements. It’s also a disservice to consumers. Polls consistently show a large percentage of Americans favor GM labeling. In 2007, candidate Barack Obama backed it, though as president he’s failed to follow through.

GM labeling is the right destination, but some in the pro-labeling camp have made the journey there unnecessarily difficult, in part by spewing alarmist epithets. It’s not unusual to hear an assortment of ills ascribed to GM foods, from obesity and cancer to infertility and genetic defects. The claims, including an oft-cited but flawed French study of rats that developed tumors after consuming GM corn, aren’t supported by scientific research. Calling GM products Frankenfood doesn’t advance the conversation. Such attacks obscure the virtues of GM crops. Engineered to thrive in extreme weather, they can improve food security, staving off malnutrition and starvation amid changing climates.

Legitimate questions remain. Do crops designed to produce insecticide end up killing honeybees and other useful insects? Do pests develop resistance to GM crops, requiring farmers to apply even more toxic chemicals to keep them in check? What happens when GM crops crossbreed with non-GM crops? These issues deserve thorough investigation.

A truce is in order. In exchange for proper GM labeling by food producers and retailers, opponents of GM food sources should observe a moratorium on scientifically dubious claims and other forms of scaremongering. This shouldn’t be too hard. In January, Mark Lynas, a U.K. environmentalist and leader of the European opposition to GM foods, apologized for his role in whipping up hysteria and organizing vandalism raids on farms conducting trials of GM crops.

GM labeling will better inform consumers about their food. A lid on opponents’ scare tactics will better inform them about the science, as well.


    To read Simon Johnson on Republican fiscal policy and William Pesek on North Korea’s nuclear program, go to:

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.