by Marion Nestle
Mar 5 2012

Petitions to label GM foods deserve support

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is inspired by California’s petition initiative to get labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot.

Q. I was just handed a petition for a ballot initiative to label genetically modified foods. I signed it, but how come GM foods aren’t already labeled?

A. Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer. Practically everyone wants them labeled. That’s why the Committee for the Right to Know is collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative to require it.

To say that food biotechnology industry supporters oppose this idea is to understate the matter. They think the future of GM foods is at stake. They must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would buy them.

If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It has done little to inspire trust.

Labeling promotes trust. Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.

As I discuss in my book, “Safe Food,” I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of the first GM tomato in 1994. As we learned later, the FDA was not asking our opinion. It was using us to gather reactions to decisions already made.

For reasons in part scientific but largely in response to industry pressures, the FDA decided that GM foods are inherently safe and no different from foods produced through traditional genetic techniques. Therefore, the thinking went, labeling would be unnecessary and mislead people into thinking that the foods are different and somehow inferior.

Some of us strongly advised the FDA to reconsider. We thought the issue of trust was paramount. If the products had some public benefit, people would buy them.

Consumers in Great Britain, for example, readily accepted tomato paste prominently labeled GM, not least because the cans were priced below those with conventional tomatoes.

But once Monsanto shipped GM corn to England without labeling it, and placed advertisements in British newspapers hyping the benefits of GM foods, the British public lost confidence. Sales declined and supermarket chains no longer were willing to carry GM items.

Today, close to 90 percent of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States are GM varieties. You must assume that ingredients made from these foods are GM – unless the product is certified organic.

When researching “What to Eat,” I knew that Hawaiian papayas engineered to resist ringspot virus were the most likely candidates. I had some tested. The conventional was GM. The organic was not. Without labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.

Intelligent people can argue about whether GM crops are good, bad or indifferent for agriculture, the environment and market economies, or whether the products are safe. But one point is clear. The absence of labeling cannot be good in the long run for business or American democracy.

Consumers have a right to know how foods are produced. Polls consistently report that most people want GM labeling. Lack of labeling raises uncomfortable questions about what the biotechnology industry and the FDA are trying to hide.

The FDA already requires labels to identify food that is made from concentrate or irradiated. At least 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere require disclosure of GM ingredients. I’ve seen candy bar labels in England with this statement: “Contains genetically modified sugar, soya and corn.” We could do this, too.

Last year, 14 states, including Oregon, New York and Vermont, introduced bills to require GM foods to be labeled. None passed, but the campaign has now gone national.

If you want a GM-label measure on the California ballot, go to  Just Label It is still collecting signatures. Signing these petitions is an important way to exercise your democratic rights as a citizen.

  • I’m for labelling (and I am in favour of the transgenic technology). But “genetically modified sugar” just does not make sense! Sugar is sugar 🙂
    Even here in Europe (I am from Italy) the labelling is mandatory but only if there is some of the original DNA in the final product (and above 0.9%).
    So cheese produced with transgenic chimosine is not labelled since you do not find transgenic DNA in the final products, unlike Tomato paste

  • Back on Jan 30, I left the below comment on another one of Marion’s pro-labeling posts. I never got a response, but I’m still hopeful that she will respond.

    I am 100% for voluntary labeling if it is truthful. Examples of voluntary labels are vegan, Halal, rBST-free, vegetarian-fed, pastured, and GMO-free. None of these indicate any health concern with the food, but they are some sort of information that the producer feels provides added value for their customers. Essentially, they are a “want to know” label. Mandatory labels are mandatory because they indicate a real health concern for some percentage of the population – such as the presence of phenylaline or nuts. These are “need to know” labels, which I feel equates more to a “right to know” than the “want to know” labels do.

    Should products produced with plant ingredients that were grown from a seed with a genetically modified trait have a mandatory label? Are they “need to know” or “want to know”? Science shows there isn’t a real health concern with the process of genetic engineering, so to me this should fall in the voluntary label. Now, if a trait did cause some real change that has a health impact (positive or negative) then that change should have a mandatory label whether it was due to genetic engineering, mutagenesis, or any other plant breeding method. This is something that the consumer has a “need” or “right” to know. The method of the change is irrelevant – a “want to know”.

    As for the patent question – many plant varieties and traits are controlled under some version of intellectual property, whether that is a patent, plant variety protection, or others. Genetic engineering is not unique in this respect. Why are we not demanding the labeling of any IP variety or trait?

    I do have a two additional comments in response to the claims made in this post:

    “Practically everyone wants them labeled.” Uncontrolled internet polls dripping with biased language do show that people want labels. The scientific literature, on the other hand (although admittedly, there isn’t much on the subject and if anyone wants to fund a study I’d be happy to consult), shows that most people aren’t actually willing to pay more for “want to know” labels.

    “Without labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.” Actually, it’s not that hard at all. Buy organic, which does not permit the use of biotechnology. Or, seek out foods with voluntary “does not contain” types of labels. Also, we know that the only GM fruit or vegetable available on the market is papaya. Sweet corn may be next, but I’d be surprised if anyone will sell it (to the detriment of non-target organisms like butterflies and lady beetles in sweet corn fields that instead will continue to to be sprayed with non-specific herbicides).

    The only time you’ll encounter products that include biotech ingredients is in processed foods – sugar from Roundup Ready sugar beets, HFCS and other additives from Bt corn, and soy ingredients from Roundup Ready soybeans. Don’t eat processed foods and you can easily avoid these things, or as I said before, buy organic processed foods. Of course, these additives are so highly refined that there’s little or no DNA or folded proteins left, and you couldn’t discern between GM and non-GM sources anyway.

  • That’s really interesting, Dario! I didn’t know that Europe’s labeling was only required when DNA was present. I wonder what the justification there would be. We eat miles of DNA daily, and there’s no evidence (aside from a few badly done or Greenpeace funded studies) that transgenic DNA behaves any differently in the digestive system than non-transgenic DNA. It’s all broken down quite well. You’d think the labeling requirement would be when there’s a certain amount of intact transgenic *protein*, because while current transgenic proteins aren’t a problem, I can far more easily imagine health problems with as-yet-not-created transgenic proteins than with DNA.

  • algernon

    TO ANASTASIA: As a Pro-Biotech, Pro-GMO Activist you make “scientific” claims but fail to mention the logical reality concerning potential negative health effects of GMO food: “absence of proof is not proof of absence”. Genetic Engineering (GE) is an infant and extremely powerful technology, and there is much that even the best geneticists do not know about the subtle consequences of GE. History is full of technological innovations that scientists assured us were “safe” but that we now know are highly unsafe. GMO foods should be clearly labeled as a simple adherence to the Precautionary Principle. If you are primarily a scientist, I should think you’d support that simple precaution – if, on the other hand, you are primarily a Pro-Biotech, Pro-GMO Activist, then I understand your anti-labeling position just as I understand Monsanto’s anti-labeling position.

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  • Nice use of antimetabole Algernon, but it really adds nothing to the points Anastasia made. The ad hominem then further detracts.

  • Anastasia: of course the DNA behaves the same, and it’s all broken down in our body so it is not an issue of safety. However regulations and laws, at least here in old Europe, are not necessarily science based. It is politics! The presence of DNA was just a criterion that at least sounded less unreasonable than others. Consider this: is they had included also products that contained something produced by a transgenic organism they would have labelled many brands of cheese, beer and bread (alpha-amylase enzymes produced with transgenic microorganisms), even infant formula (proteinase), maybe wine and some other stuff. It would have been a commercial disaster. That’s why they introduces that regulation: so sugar is not labelled (by the way, in Europe i don’t think we import sugar from the US anyway) but soybean oils is labelled since you can find tiny tiny traces of DNA (that would get destroied in the frying pan anyway).

    I am a scientist and I agree with your “scientific” comments (I even wrote a book on GMOs here in Italy). However you must accept that people are afraid, and the big corporations did not behave transparently and NOT labelling is not going to help. Look the other way: is you have a sure label you could explicitly push for (some) benefit TO THE CONSUMER of (some) GM crop. Lowel levels of fumonisine in corn comes to mind.

    People here now would like even more informations on the label: for example would like to know if milk or meat was produced from animals feeded with GM corn or soy. And I agree: only if there is a transparent labelling that goes beyond the “scientific facts” you can gain trust from normal people (forget activists), and maybe convince them that (some) gm crop can be actually good for the environment and for them

  • “Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer.”

    As Ben Goldacre would say “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that…”

    “Practically everyone wants them labeled.”

    we’ll see, right now I think that conclusion is based mainly on misleading, self-selected polls

    “They must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would buy them.”

    The problem is that a number of anti-gmo and GMO labeling activists have openly stated that GMO labeling will (in their hopes) help put an end to GM food.
    Like the stickers warning that evolution is only a theory that were in some biology books, Gmo labeling is a seemingly innocuous attempt to create Fear, uncertainty and doubt hidden under the guise of freedom and democracy.

    This issue is also a concern of many of those that are against labeling, but there are also other more fundamental reasons that many oppose labeling as well such as undermining the very basis of food labeling law, sidestepping the rational criteria to push a politically and ideologically motivated label.

    “Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.”

    Where is the choice for those that want to also avoid hybrid crops? And for vegans and those that want to avoid animal products? he extremist Christians who want to avoid food made prepared according to Islamic tradition.
    Why cant those that have fears of GMOs do at least as much as vegans, and do their own research on their own food, build their own lists of approved brands and items and establish their own third party certification systems. These things are all possible to do and are already employed by a number of people.

    “Without labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.”

    There are a lot of things we can’t infer directly from the label on produce. Whether its hybrid, whether it is the product of mutagenesis. Whether it is coats in vegetable or animal derived wax. How ecologically efficient the farm is. What particular pesticides and other inputs were used (organic or not).

    “But “genetically modified sugar” just does not make sense!”

    quite correct. About as much sense as labeling whether the sugar was filtered through bone char. Sure it is info I would personally like to have, but labeling law has specific purposes and rationals, such matters of personal choice are not their purpose, safety is. Until you can demonstrate the same degree of evidence as for other products that require labeling then you call for labeling is arbitrary and unjustified. As it stands the current call is for a uninformative blanket GMO label, which tells us nothing very useful about the specific product in question.

  • Janet Camp

    Hello Hortense,

    I agree with you in general, but I think you’ve fallen into your own trap a bit. Dr Nestle does not engage in “pop” science, nor does she take any real stand against GM technology. She merely favors labeling for reasons she carefully outlined.

    Please read some of her work here and in her books before you make these assumptions. I deplore the practices you outline, but they are simply unfairly attributed to Marion.

    While I find your pseudonym amusing, it is easier to take people seriously when they are willing to put their own names to their views.

  • A couple of you are refuting that most Americans want GMOs labeled, assuming that claim comes from a biased “internet” study with non-representative sample.

    A Thomson-Reuters survey of 3025 people in 2010 found that 93% of Americans want GMOs labeled. More details of the study are found here:

    Even with a 1.8% margin of error… 93% represents “most people,” in my opinion.

  • SkepticalVegan,

    “Where is the choice for those that want to also avoid hybrid crops? And for vegans and those that want to avoid animal products? he extremist Christians who want to avoid food made prepared according to Islamic tradition.”

    You lost me here. If I wanted something vegan, I could look on the label and read whether or not there are animal products in it. I might need to know the names of a few animal-derived ingredients, like “casein” or “lactalbumin,” but for the most part could tell if there were animal products.

    Halal foods have a certification process not unlike Kosher. If I wanted to avoid Halal foods I would look for the symbol.

    I am not sure what hybrid crops you mean to avoid. Mankind has been cross-pollinating and trait selecting since the beginning of farming. There is a difference between bees (or q-tips) carrying DNA from a plant to another plant, and making up new DNA to be introduced via a plasmid.

  • Stealthy mom: it’s not so simple if you want to avoid any animal product in the PRODUCTION (same logic as the trace of DNA that i mentioned above). For example, to produce wine often the add albumin to clarify wine. It is not present in the final product and is NOT written on the label.
    Other case: at least here in europe in organic farming you can use animal derived fertilizers, and I do not mean manure. I am talking meat and bone meal. If an organic farm uses these fertilizers you cannot known, it is not written on the label. Maybe a vegan (which I am not) would like to know

  • Dario, you make a great case for transparency and for voluntary labeling, but I still don’t see a solid argument for *mandatory* labeling.

  • Anastasia: how would you react to a mandatory label to certificate that a product was not produced using childrens’ labor?

  • Mary

    @Stealthy Mom: Halal and Kosher are great examples. These are voluntary labels done by groups who have philosophical issues with food. Just like GMOs. The government doesn’t mandate nor monitor those, right?

    Marion is such a supporter of evidence-based claims, I’m sure you’ll all demand evidence-based labels. And so you’ll certainly have the evidence to show me for why the government should create, monitor, and track this labeling. Please show me evidence of the effectiveness of GMO labels in all these places where they have been labeling–has it decreased allergies? Has it improved health? Has it reduced pesticides or other inputs? What is the claim you want to label for exactly?

  • Yes,labeling promotes trust.

  • “You lost me here. If I wanted something vegan, I could look on the label and read whether or not there are animal products in it”

    Actually no, its not that simple at all. That would be like saying that you can avoid GMOs by only reading current ingredient labels because soy and corn are listed. Many animal ingredients are not clearly marked at all such as, mono- and diglycerides, lactic acid, cysteine, “natural flavor”, “enzymes”, ect. Its not just a few, its a book full (and Ive got a copy).

    Further, there are numerous products that are filtered using animal products that are generally not considered vegan but that do not label anything about this filtration (examples are beer, wine, sugar, juice).
    In all these cases vegans must call and ask. So vegans have about as much info as anti-gmo advocates. If you see corn or soy you know to generally avoid it if its not organic, but you have to become familiar with the smaller ingredients such as ones listed above. Just as many of these ingredients can be either animal or plant sourced, they can also be non-gmo or GMO sourced. Vegans have to call and ask about the sourcing of these ingredients, anti-gmo advocates can do the same.

    “If I wanted to avoid Halal foods I would look for the symbol. ”

    Except that halal food are not always labeled as such. Again its not that simple.There is no law requiring food produced in a halal manner to be labeled as such. This came to the attention of a number of more extreme christens when it was point out that Butter Ball Turkeys are certified hala yet not always clearly marked as such. People have actually called for a boycott on these grounds, feel their religious conscience, and expressed great outrage over the issue.

    “I am not sure what hybrid crops you mean to avoid.”

    There is a sub-set of environmental and alternative health proponents who advocate avoiding some or all hybrid crops (especially f1 hybrids) for various reasons. They make a number of health, environmental, and political claims about hybrids crops.
    Modern hybrid crops arn’t necessarily the same as natural crosses, for example there are plenty of forced crosses by techniques like protoplast fusion and embryo rescue.

    “There is a difference between bees (or q-tips) carrying DNA from a plant to another plant, and making up new DNA to be introduced via a plasmid.”

    as there is a difference as between protoplast fusion, embryo rescue, mutation breeding, marker assisted selection, ect.
    But there is nothing special about any of these techniques that justifies labeling.
    Again GMO labeling is arbitrary and the proposed labels are extremely vague and uninformative. They don’t even tell us the nature of the modification.

  • I had no idea someone would avoid Halal food. I suppose if someone wanted to totally avoid Halal, they could switch to bacon. Bacon is certainly not Halal. Other than that, what is to avoid?

    (I understand Kosher certification much more clearly, and, as a non-Jew, often look for Kosher when given a choice. I worked in a plant where a Rabbi inspected everything from the ingredients storage, the manufacturing process and the final product storage. He went through receiving logs and lots of ingredients to make sure they were certified. In a year I never saw USDA or FDA, but the Rabbi came by monthly. Have you ever heard of an outbreak of foodborne illness among Kosher products? Me, neither.)

    I learned something about vegan food. I suppose a little symbol indicating that a standard was followed would be helpful.

    None of this changes my mind about wanting new, unknown food proteins labeled. There is a rise in autoimmune issues, from allergies to MS, and it might be related to GMO foods. Or it might not. I choose to avoid these foods for my kids. If it was a deterrant, and encouraged more food companies to offer non-GMOs it would be helpful to me.

  • Ewan R

    Stealthy Mom – one may object to the method of slaughter utilized in Halal food production – its certainly a reason for avoiding Halal that I’ve heard come up.

    Have you ever heard of an outbreak of foodborne illness among Kosher products? Me, neither.)

    Apparently you can’t do a google search.

    There is a rise in autoimmune issues, from allergies to MS, and it might be related to GMO foods. Or it might not.

    it quite clearly isn’t, and it is spectacularly ignorant to suggest otherwise.

  • Dario, that is a hard question. Just like labeling of animal by-products, I would personally like a label to certify that a product was not produced using childrens’ labor. However, I don’t think either label should be mandatory – at least not under the current US labeling regulations. Mandatory labels are for specific reasons, and “want to know” issues that don’t have to do with real health concerns aren’t one of those reasons. Companies are welcome to produce voluntary, truthful labels to provide “want to know” info to consumers, and consumers are welcome to press companies to provide the info they want.

  • Heidi Saunders

    I think if new technology is used in the production of any food that in any way alters the foods natural condition, I as a consumer have a right to know. If to food has been irradiated, I want to know. If it has been genetically modified, I want to know. If pesticides were used, I want to know. I don’t care how much it costs the food production companies. I don’t care what kind of fear it may generate for the consumer market adversely affecting the sale of the product.

    As stated in the comments above, it will likely be years before the effects of new technologies used on foods are clear. I would like the option of avoiding foods treated with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and genetic modifications until it is clear that there are no harmful effects. My personal feeling is better safe than sorry. Any arguements against labeling are anti-consumer in my feeling. The only people who stand to lose anything in the labeling laws are the companies producing the product. I’m sure cost of labeling will increase the cost of the product and the consumer will pay more. I don’t particularly care about that however unfeeling that sounds. I am a lower middle class individual and it would hurt my pocket book to pay for more clear labeling of ingredients and food production process. If the rest of the US is happy to spend less to remain ignorant then they are. I am not.

    Whether or not the laws are put into effect, I will buy organic, plant a garden and can vegetables. All risk can’t be avoided, but it would be nice to know, just by looking at the label, if the food contained was sprayed, modified, whatever. Arguements can be made for why not to do this and I understand the reasons stated above. However, the most important thing to me is to know. The only reason I can see not to label that holds much weight is that it will cost the company more to put a label on and therefore cost the consumer more to buy it. So make every company label everything, that should even it out :).

  • Heidi, you say arguments against labeling are anti-consumer even as you admit that mandatory labels will raise prices for consumers. Call me crazy, but I find raising the prices of food for all to satisfy the wants of a few is pretty anti-consumer.

  • Frank

    I’ve been watching this “debate” here and subsequently on Facebook & twitter. Fundamentally it comes down to want, need or right to know. Now I personally want to know. I want to know for a variety of reasons that go far beyond the social masturbation of “my science can beat up your science.” I only “need” to know when faced with a product that has no labeling. I don’t have a “right’ to know … right now.

    I don’t believe we have an inalienable right to know if our food is genetically modified. And I don’t necessarily believe it’s an ethical principle or an entitlement. But I “want” to know strongly enough that I am willing to stand on the streets and gather signatures to ensure we vote in order that we all have the “right” to know.

    Fortunately in this state, we still have, an Initiative process. This process is our direct form of Democracy. We have, given to us, the statutory “right” to create other “rights” as we see fit. We’ll succeed or fail in the current effort and either way the debate will continue. If we fail, we’ll try again. If we succeed, we’ll all have the (legal) “right” to know what’s in our food. The beauty of that is, that for those who don’t want mandatory labeling, their point will be moot, because after all, this is a Democracy where the majority still prevails.

  • Nicely put, Frank. Best wishes in your endeavor.

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  • Michele

    Dr. Nestle,

    You mention Hawaiian papayas and the ringspot virus in your post; I’d like to expand on this story for readers who may not be familiar with it, because I think it has some interesting implications for the usefulness of GMO labels.

    Some time in the early 90s, the ringworm virus began to devastate the Hawaiian papaya industry. At one point production dropped to half of what it should have been. Using GE, scientists were able to develop virus-resistant papaya: little piece of the viral DNA was introduced directly into the papaya genome, where it behaved a bit like the vaccinations we administer in syringes, inoculating the fruit against further infection.

    The project was cheap and effective. Interestingly, even the organic, non-GE papaya has benefited from the GE technology: the widespread cultivation of virus-resistant fruit means that there’s less virus to grow around, and growers of non-GE papaya can also use the GE variety as a cover crop.

    It seems problematic to me that organic papaya would get to smugly wear a “GMO-free” label when GMO technology has been instrumental to its survival. Clearly, there’s no room on a label to unpack the specifics of this case or any other–so is it meaningful, or even honest, to touch on genetic engineering at all?

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  • McKenna Grace Fisher

    Ty so much for leaving this information ~ Brilliantly stated and educational ~