Senate passes GMO bill. Will labels ease Americans' food-related fears?

A bill requiring companies to disclose GMO content in their food has passed in the Senate, reflected heated societal debate about the products' risks and the right to information.  

Brennan Linsley/AP Photo/File
In this 2014 photo, a grocery store employee wipes down a soup bar with a display informing customers of organic, GMO-free oils, in Boulder, Colo.

The Senate voted 63-30 on Thursday in support of a bill that would require food manufacturers to indicate whether or not packaged food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), reflecting a heated societal debate between those who say GMOs present no or low risks, and others who argue the technology is too new to know for sure, or simply that customers have the right to now what they're eating.    

If the legislation passes in the House of Representatives, as expected, it will create a national standard for GMO labeling, something that many say has been sorely lacking. Big food companies, in particular, welcome the consistency of the new legislation, as they currently struggle to meet conflicting state laws in various parts of the country.

That's not to say that either side is fully satisfied with the bill; some say it restricts the controversial idea of a company's First Amendment rights, while others say that it doesn't do enough to clarify which ingredients are genetically modified.

"It's fair to say that it's not the ideal bill, but it is certainly the bill that can pass, which is the most important right now," Patrick Delaney, the American Soybean Association's director of policy communications, told Reuters.

The legislation would require GMO ingredients, as defined by the U.S. Agriculture Department, to be labeled with words, pictures, or a bar code, which shoppers could scan with their smartphones. Among the most common criticisms are worries that the barcode option makes it too difficult for consumers to make quick, informed decisions. "Many food consumers will simply not take the time needed to inform themselves about the ingredients of the many food items they purchase," Cornell University professor William Lesser says in a statement. 

Still, some say that perhaps the best outcome from the legislation will be the bill's ability to quell the clamor of fearful food skeptics, whose concerns about ingredients and food sourcing have become so engrained in our culture – while others argue it will do exactly the opposite, making shoppers shy of foods they normally would not (and should not, they argue) hesitate to buy.

Many shoppers "have gotten to where they are fearful of the sorts of things that might be in their food, to the point where they might be a bit paranoid about it," Cornell University professor David Just, an expert on food choices, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "This could calm those who are avidly into this topic, but for the average consumer, these labels are more than likely going to be something that they almost never pay attention to." 

Others fear it will raise new, and perhaps unmerited, concerns. The longstanding debate over GM crops taps into emotional values about families' safety, and worries about technology. "Because many people aren't sufficiently informed, they see that label and it sounds bad," Greg Conko, a senior analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "And that creates a false view of the product in their minds."

Such labels are relatively common around the world, however. Some 64 countries, including most of Europe, require food companies to indicate whether or not their products contain GMOs, according to the Center for Food Safety, which promotes organic and sustainable agriculture.

"Consumers understand the impact of their dietary choices on their health and the health of their families and realize that everyone needs to exercise a higher level of personal responsibility," Charles Benbrook, says Charles Benbrook, a researcher with ties to pro-labeling groups and whose research is frequently cited by advocates of the organic industry. "Any new technology like today’s GMO foods that substantially alter the genetic makeup of common foods certainly has to be studied carefully and introduced to the food supply with great care."

For many scientists and economists, however, the promise of genetically modified food to alleviate hunger and to help the world's farmers adapt to changing climates far outweigh such concerns.

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