Comprehensive Labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms

TO: Sally Howard, J.D., Deputy Commissioner for Policy, Planning, and Legislation for the Food and Drug Administration

FROM: Kathleen Merlini, Davidson College

SUBJECT: The Necessity and Advantages of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods in the United States

DATE: April 2, 2015

 

The United States is one of few developed countries and world leaders that do not require labeling of genetically modified organisms in foods, which violates consumer autonomy and decreases our potential trade partners in the global market. Consumers have voiced their fears about GMOs, which have fallen on deaf ears, and the European Union has refused to buy GMOs from the United States. In order to protect consumers and maintain a powerful trade position, the United States must adopt a comprehensive food-labeling policy concerning genetically modified organisms.

 

Foods that have been genetically modified present adverse health and environmental risks.

  • In the case that crops are becoming genetically resistant to herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals, they are in turn creating “superweeds” which are more difficult to control than previous weeds, as well as “’new’ plant diseases” that begin to attack other species and damage wild plants.[i] Also, insects are becoming resistant to GM pesticides, and farmers are not equipped to fend off these stronger pests.[ii]
  • Non-target pests may interact with pest resistant crops, which are highly toxic towards them.[iii] Similarly, pesticide and herbicide residue from GM crops is found on produce and in groundwater and soli, presenting toxins into the human body.[iv]
  • Introducing new genes into human food produces unforeseeable and undesirable effects, including allergens, carcinogens, and toxicity.[v]
  • They disrupt soil ecosystems, reduce soil fertility, and even have the potential to change climatological patterns.[vi] They also reduce biodiversity.[vii]
  • GMO crops negatively impact the livelihood of small farmers who do not use them due to “genetic pollution” or unintended cross-pollination through wind. [viii]

Over 60 countries worldwide, and notably the European Union, have adopted stringent labeling policies of GMOs and relevant food allergens.

  • Most developed nations including 28 members of the European Union, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Australia and China have labeling policies.
    • The U.S. is at risk financially if it is not a leader in global trade and health safety, for it may have to buy or import the technology from other countries.
    • Compared to the powerful and developed countries that do label, the United States is at risk in the global market.
  • The US has tried to sue the EU on grounds that it does not have a sufficient risk assessment to ban trade of GM foods with the US, but the EU rightly argues that the scientific analyses of GMOs is still a new field and the long term health effects are unknown.[x]

There is a lack of transparency within weak government policies, and public opinions are not considered within policy-making process.

  • 93% of Americans support the labeling of genetically modified or engineered foods, citing reasons such as concerns over human health effects, risk of cancer and allergens, toxicity, and environmental impacts.
    • According to one survey, half of Americans reported they would not eat GM grains or vegetables, while approximately three-quarters would not eat GM fish or meat.[i]
  • The FDA has in place a nearly 20 year-old policy, which defines a food label as misleading if it leaves out significant “material” information.
    • Material is defined as being detectable by sight, smell, and other senses, not atomic.[i]
    • GMOs are considered “substantially equivalent.”[ii]

The World Trade Organization policies on labeling are contradictory and work against the labeling of genetically modified organisms.

  • The policy that “WTO member states have a right to determine the level of protection of health that they consider appropriate in a given situation” has been largely ignored in the case of GMO trade rulings in favor of demanding extensive and unobtainable risk assessments[i]
  • According to the WTO, the risk-assessment process must be objective and quantifiable and based on information and data from scientific knowledge of physical laws and property.
    • This does not take into account deeply rooted cultural systems.
    • It also assumes that we have all relevant data needed to assess GMO safety, but they are simply too novel to assess long-term effect.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS

  1. Matching the European precautionary principle-oriented food labeling policies in order to stay competitive while trading in the global agriculture market.
  • There will likely be political resistance to this approach especially from interest groups that are supported by large agricultural-business companies like Monsanto or Cargill, who feel that labeling will hurt them in domestic markets and that GMO-related risks do not constitute labeling.
  • The economic advantage is that it will open trade avenues with 64 countries, may of which are developed, who label their GMO products. The United Sates will become more competitive on the global market, and American farmers will be able to sell more of their products.
  • The precautionary principle approach will reduce health risks domestically and abroad.
  • It requires updates to packaging with clear, easily legible labels on the front of products, which will be a simple change in printing. Companies update packaging often, so this is not a daunting technological change.
  1. An update of the 1992 FDA policy on food labeling, which is outdated and unsafe for consumers.
  • Drafting and implementation of new policy will show commitment to transparency for citizens by the government. New legislation will require support from interest groups and both parties in the house, and without the influence of companies with a vested economic interest, such as Monsanto and Cargill.
  • This will increase social and labor capital, as it decreases negative health and environmental effects that some studies have linked to GMOs. It will also give consumers more autonomy over what they eat because they will be well informed when shopping with food labels.
  • Economically, the playing field will be leveled for farmers and food producers who do not use GMOs or chemicals. Often, the farms that do use them are subsidized and can produce more than those who choose not to, creating barriers to entry and an unfair market.
  • Incorporating scientific studies from unbiased institutions that are not stakeholders or profiteers in the food industry will require regulation and advancements to technology currently available for testing GMOs so we may be better equipped to determine their long-term effects.
  1. Allow referendums for citizens and consumers to voice their opinions on GMO policies and incorporate these into the policy-making process.
  • Referendums are largely unprecedented on the national level of American politics, so legislators would have to relinquish some control and institute one of the most democratic forms of governance. This would encourage public participation, which has been dwindling over the past few decades, most notably in elections.
  • This would validate the “right to know” that most consumers feel they possess when choosing which foods to buy. According to surveys, 93% of democrats, 90% of independents, and 89% of republicans all support GMO labeling. It would empower consumers to make their own decisions, and make them feel like a directly integral part of our democratic system. [xvi]
  • Economic and technological costs would be felt in administering and regulating voting procedures. However, polls and ballot voting are not new to the United States election process, so the adjustments would be minor.

 

RECOMMENDATION

Based on the scoring system, the best solution is revisiting the outdated 1992 FDA regulations and updating them to mandate labeling of all food produced through genetic modification and regulating transgenic foods to undergo extensive testing before they are used in foods in ways the human body is unaccustomed to. This will provide great public benefit to American consumers by increasing their knowledge and autonomy over their food choices, and make the United States more competitive on the global agricultural market. Furthermore, it will reduce health care costs and environmental impacts that GMOs present, and encourage further testing into their effects in the long-term.

 

Criteria Do Nothing Match the EU Update FDA Regulations Citizens Referendum Criteria Weight
Political Feasibility 2 2 2 1 0.175
Administrative Feasibility 3 1 2 2 0.20
Social Costs and Benefits 1 3 3 3 0.25
Environmental Costs and Benefits 1 3 3 3 0.25
Economic Costs and Benefits 2 2 2 2 0.20
Option Score 1.8 2.2 2.4 2.2  

1= Not feasible; the costs outweigh the benefits

2 = Moderately feasible; costs and benefits equal each other

3= Feasible; the benefits ou

[i] Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[ii] Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[iii] Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[iv] Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[v] Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[vi] Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[vii] Tladi, Dire. “The Biosafety Protocol and the Promotion of Sustainable Development : with One Hand It Giveth, with the Savings Clause It Taketh Away?” Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa. 39.1 (2006): 83-101. Print.

[viii] Tladi, Dire. “The Biosafety Protocol and the Promotion of Sustainable Development : with One Hand It Giveth, with the Savings Clause It Taketh Away?” Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa. 39.1 (2006): 83-101. Print.

Ando, Amy W, and Madhu Khanna. “Environmental Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Implications for Regulatory Strategies.” American Behavioral Scientist. 44.3 (2000): 435-463. Print.

[ix] 2011. “The Current Policy” Just Label It. December 27. http://www.justlabelit.org/right-to-know-center/fda-ge-policy/ (April 6, 2015)

  1. “New EU-wide food labeling rules begin to apply” EurActive. February 1. http://www.euractiv.com/sections/agriculture-food/new-eu-wide-food-labelling-rules-begin-apply-310783 (March 27, 2015)

[x] Bloche, M G, and Elizabeth R. Jungman. “Health Policy and the Wto.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 31.4 (2003): 529-545. Print.

[xi] Kopicki, Allison. 2013. “Strong Support for Labeling Modified Foods” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/science/strong-support-for-labeling-modified-foods.html?_r=1 (April 5, 2015)

[xii] Kopicki, Allison. 2013. “Strong Support for Labeling Modified Foods” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/science/strong-support-for-labeling-modified-foods.html?_r=1 (April 5, 2015)

[xiii] 2011. “The Current Policy” Just Label It. December 27. http://www.justlabelit.org/right-to-know-center/fda-ge-policy/ (April 6, 2015)

[xiv] 2011. “The Current Policy” Just Label It. December 27. http://www.justlabelit.org/right-to-know-center/fda-ge-policy/ (April 6, 2015)

[xv] Bloche, M G, and Elizabeth R. Jungman. “Health Policy and the Wto.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 31.4 (2003): 529-545. Print.

Halfon, Saul. “Confronting the Wto: Intervention Strategies in Gmo Adjudication.” Science, Technology, & Human Values. 35.3 (2010): 307-329. Print.

[xvi] 2012. “Consumer Support” Just Label It. August 3. http://www.justlabelit.org/right-to-know-center/polls-surveys/ (April 6, 2015)

 

Kacey Merlini

About Kacey Merlini

I am a sophomore Environmental Social Science major at Davidson College particularly focusing on the political, economic, and social impacts of renewable energy systems and food policy. I also play lacrosse at Davidson, and in my free time I enjoy spending time outdoors and photography.

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