Walk into a major grocery store in America and you are likely to see two things: one is a small section labeled “organic” and, of course, the other is the rest of the grocery store. That store is likely full of products that contain genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients. However, as they are not labeled, the average consumer has no idea that there is an actual difference between the organic food and the “non-organic” food beyond simply the title. There is no consistent system as to alert consumers as to the difference between organic foods and genetically modified “non-organic” foods – but that is changing.
Early in May, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law that requires the labeling of foods that contain GMO's. The law, which will not go into effect until 2016, is not the first of it's kind. In fact, Maine and Connecticut passed labeling laws earlier this year that are contingent on a “trigger” – they won't take effect until several surrounding states pass similar legislation. However, being the first GMO labeling law passed without a contingency clause, the Vermont bill could blaze the trail towards equality in food knowledge for all states.
Most Americans do not know what exactly their food consists of, aside from the privileged few. Labeling laws make that knowledge possible; but they are not without opposition. Those who oppose labeling, including groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association lead by food giant Monsanto, argue that the state-by-state regulations will cause them to incur unnecessary and significant costs. It is their view that the FDA already has labeling standards, which is true – for organic foods.
Purchasing organic food, typically priced at a markup between 20-to-100% compared to genetically modified foods, is not a actionable task for most Americans, especially those in low-income households. In fact, low-income areas seldom contain an organic food store – as such, the organic labeling standards currently on the books hardly factor into purchases the average consumer makes. New laws, like the one in Vermont, afford people the ability to know what is in their food.
There have been several articles written about GMO labeling – on both sides of the argument. Pro-labeling supporters say that it is necessary because GMO's are unhealthy, which isn't necessarily a proven fact. No widely regarded study has shown GMO's to be “poisonous” as some have claimed. Those who oppose labeling argue that it will drive up the price of groceries which will adversely affect all consumers, which isn't completely true either. According to a study by Bill Lesser at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, there may be a price increase but there are variable factors that are wildly unknowable. Other studies have shown that the price may not rise at all.
So what is really the issue about GMO labeling? Privilege.
There is a certain privilege that comes alongside buying organic foods. It is reassuring to know that when you go to the grocery store, and make a purchase, the food you are buying will not adversely affect you. Eating organic food is safer – that's a fact. What has yet to be proven is the long term health benefits or risks of GMO's. Though GMO labeling might not lead consumers to purchase organic foods all the time or stay away from genetically modified foods, it allows consumers to make an informed decision. In fact, in most countries that require GMO labeling, consumers continue to buy genetically modified foods at a comparable rate to before labeling laws were enacted.
While low-income families may not be able to shop at Whole Foods on a regular basis or always purchase from the organic section of the grocery store they should have the right to choose what they subject themselves and their families too. If someone knowingly decides to eat genetically modified foods then that is her prerogative but she should at least be afforded the opportunity to make an informed decision. That opportunity is what GMO labeling allows for. Beyond the vitriol and fear-mongering on both sides, labeling laws allow people the freedom to choose. They take the exclusivity of knowledge afforded to the privileged few and give it to the masses.
Imagine going into the same grocery store and there are two sections of corn, one labeled organic and the other noting that it contains GMO's, what do you do? Make an informed decision.
Adam Harris is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. He covers topics ranging from politics to etiquette. Follow him on Twitter @BlackSisyphus.