Why the US is against GM labeling is beyond me. In the European Union, all products must clearly state if they contain or not genetically modified organisms. However, in the United States, where over 60 percent of processed foods contain a genetically altered ingredient, GM labeling is not required, and consumers remain largely unconcerned about it.

Agustín Aguilar, CIMMYT greenhouse and laboratory assistant, at work in the greenhouse that houses transgenic wheat at CIMMYT's El Batán, Mexico headquarters. In its work on drought tolerant wheat, CIMMYT is here developing lines that are homozygous for drought tolerance transgenes, requiring that they be self-pollinated for several generations. Aguilar is bagging the heads of the wheat to prevent any risk of cross-pollination.  Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.

Agustín Aguilar at work in the greenhouse that houses transgenic wheat at CIMMYT’s El Batán, Mexico headquarters. He is working on drought tolerant wheat.Aguilar is bagging the heads of the wheat to prevent any risk of cross-pollination.
Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.

Mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods in the United States has been proposed, but has never been enacted at a national, state, or even local level. We have to be realistic and understand that genetically modified organisms aren’t inherently something bad – on the contrary, they are what feed the world today. But it’s also true that people have an inherent right to know what’s in the food that they eat – that’s what I think. But that’s not what US authorities, and apparently voters, believe.

Preliminary tallies suggest Washington state voters have struck down a ballot initiative to require labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. The vote, held two days ago, on the 5th of November (remember, remember, the 5th of November?) was the latest episode in an ongoing fight over GM labeling. However, unlike most episodes, in this one, the people actually have the power – but they turned it down. Preliminary results showed that 55 percent of all people voted against GM labeling, and even though all the votes haven’t been counted yet, it’s extremely unlike that something will change. Interestingly enouch, California voted pretty much the same way, rejecting the proposal last year.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires genetically modified labeling only if biotechnology changes the nutritional profile of the food or introduces an allergen, such as a peanut protein. Otherwise, the food is considered to be “substantially equivalent” to its non-genetically modified counterpart and doesn’t need to be labeled, and even though the FDA allows voluntary labeling, it’s easy to understand why most companies don’t do it. As a matter of fact, several food companies rely on this decision and use labels such as “GMO free” or “not genetically modified” – even though the foods are substantially modified – and the FDA is totally OK with that.

China is also having problems implementing GM labeling. Photo credit: anjuli_ayer

China is also having problems implementing GM labeling. Photo credit: anjuli_ayer

So why are so many people against labeling? Well the main argument is that it would stir unnecessary panic, implying a warning about health effects, whereas no significant differences between GE and conventional foods have been detected. The other main argument is that labeling of GE foods to fulfill the desires of some consumers would impose a cost on all consumers – and people can always just buy certified BIO products – which of course, are substantially more expensive than their counterparts.

Of course, the food companies also don’t want to do this, and they pose an immense pressure on politicians and public opinion. I don’t want to say they manipulated the population, but let’s just say they have a way of presenting things in their own light. In Europe, GM labeling is considered to be a basic right, and even some of the less developed countries do it. But in the US… things will have to wait.

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