Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that make it onto grocery store shelves will soon carry an identifying label. Unfortunately, the label prototypes just released by the USDA are confusing at best. At worst, the proposed labels designs seem to be promoting GMOs.
Bright colors and simple botanic illustrations blossom across the designs, some of which even resemble a smiley face or happy sunshine. Worse, “GMO” – a familiar term that has been used in the conversation about these foods for decades – appears nowhere on the labels. Instead, they employ the letters ‘B’ and ‘E’ for “bioengineered,” a choice which will leave even savvy consumers questioning the products’ contents. The labels could easily be mistaken for a design created by the corporate agricultural industry to promote their products.
In 2016, Congress passed a bill requiring foods which contain GMO ingredients to bear a label. Like many successful bills, its successful passage required compromises, leaving many on both sides of the issue feeling unsatisfied. Agribusiness lobbyists oppose labeling GMOs for fear of chasing consumers away from their products. Consumer advocates argue that the labeling requirements do not go far enough. For example, the new law allows information about the product to be included on a QR code, which customers have to scan using a smart phone connected to the internet. This is much more complicated than simply printing the information on the packaging. Worse, it restricts access for shoppers who are not adept with technology and those too poor to afford it.
Two years after the bill’s passage, the USDA has created a set of standards for the process in addition to the proposed labels. These standards are still in the public comment phase and won’t be finalized until the end of summer. Interested consumers are encouraged to give your comments here.
The new mandate to label foods is only part of a decades-long conversation about GMOs. Many scientists worry that not enough time has passed to properly understand the effects on human health of adding, removing, or combining genes in food. For this reason, the majority of European Union nations as well as Russia, Turkey and Peru, amongst others, have banned agribusinesses from growing genetically modified crops. A few dozen other nations enforce partial bans.
Instead of taking a similarly cautious approach, the United States has gone full steam ahead in allowing big agriculture to employ untested technology. 90% of farmland used to produce corn and soy products in the United States belongs to modified crops.
Fortunately, the majority of studies have not yet found any health threat from GMOs. However, the other reasons consumers may want to avoid these products are as diverse as shoppers themselves. These include unsustainable agricultural practices; bullying of small, independent farmers by huge corporations and their lawyers; unease over the influence of agricultural lobbying on the American political system; and distrust of huge bioengineering corporations like Monsanto and Dow Chemical, whose infamous neurotoxin Agent Orange poisoned American troops and indigenous people alike in the Vietnam War.
Regardless of what motivates their decisions, consumers have a right to know what their dollars are supporting. The proposed labels will not do their job of helping people make informed decisions.