Increasingly, consumers are becoming keen on information regarding the production of foods in making their buying decisions. This explains why international standards organizations, state and federal governments face a dilemma when labeling biotechnology products such as GMOs. According to Caswell (1), labeling is an adequate for process attributes that concern customers and may want or avoid. However, regulators are hesitant to label such attributes since they are of the opinion that labeling might be taken to indicate final consumer-level safety. While states are considering laws requiring the labeling of GMOs, food and biotechnology companies are waging a spirited battle against requirements for the labeling of GMOs. This brings up the question, should GMOs be labeled?
Indeed, GMOs should be labeled. A genetically modified organism is a meat or plant product whose genes have been altered in a laboratory using genes from other animals, plants, bacteria or viruses so as to obtain the desired qualities in that product. Many food and beverage products are usually labeled, and the labels contain the ingredients used in the preparation of such foods. In the simplest of reasons for the labeling of GMOs, most people would want to be aware of what they are consuming or taking into their bodies. Caswell (2) observes that labeling enables markets to operate more effectively since producers who prefer using or not using a certain technology are easily matched to consumers wanting to buy products containing particular process attributes.
Voluntary labeling of the nonuse or use of GMOs gives way for companies to use production processes and related labeling and marketing that will maximize their own returns. This also allows consumers to make choices that are pegged on a range of process attribute and price combinations that are offered in the market. This means that the market can decide on the degree of acceptance of a particular new technology such as the use of genetically modified organisms. The call for labeling of foods containing ingredients that are genetically engineered has increased in recent years due to the public’s concern on their health suitability. There have been few reports and studies indicating that the consumption of GMOs might have bad health effects. For example, according to Hopkinson (1), 26 states considered passing legislation on GMO labeling in 2013, and many of them are expected to continue the debate in 2014.
According to Hopkinson (1), about 66 percent of Washington residents are ready to vote for ballot initiative 522, making the state the first in the country to require the labeling of GMOs. Also, polls indicate that most Americans prefer GMO labeling. While no studies can explicitly show that genetically engineered foods are hazardous to health, people need to be cautious about what they eat. GMOs were introduced on the narrative that they would lead to resistance to salt and flooding, as well as increased yields. However, traditional methods of crop and animal husbandry have been able to produce varieties that exhibit these traits. According to Hopkinson (3), there is a study that indicates a large increase in birth defects and cancer in Argentina in commercial farming areas where GM crops have been introduced.
However, opponents of GMO labeling argue that genetically engineered food is the future. They observe that it will be healthier and more sustainable than the traditional foods eaten today. According to Schonwald (2), a genetically modified crop has to pass review by the Environment Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration. This is estimated to cost about hundreds to tens of millions of dollars in obtaining approval. In doing this, companies producing genetically modified crops have to show the alteration that took place. As such, the process of producing GMOs consumes both time and resources, and this is why only giants in agribusiness such as Syngenta and Monsanto have such resources to produce such foods. Therefore, labeling would be rather unfair to such companies. Also, opponents against labeling argue that the world would be a better place if it embraced biotechnology since it would ensure food security and improve nutrition. However, labeling does not mean banning the GMOs from the supermarket shelves.
Labeling is meant to help the consumer get to know what he or she is taking into the body. Conventionally, people shop for food products by looking at the list of ingredients contained in a certain product. For example, cooking oil products will have labels such as 0.00% cholesterol. Other products will show the calorie content of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. Labeling and listing of ingredients is intended to assist the consumer in making buying decisions based on what they deem appropriate for their health. Therefore, since products obtained using traditional methods are labeled, GMOs should also be labeled. Agribusiness companies dealing with GMOs can choose to use voluntary labeling without government intervening to enforce mandatory labeling laws. Whether voluntary or mandatory, labeling of process attributes is important and food companies need to perceive at it as an opportunity and not a threat (Caswell 3). By using it as an opportunity, they can develop marketing strategies that are in line with labeling policies.
Caswell, Julie A. “Should Use of Genetically Modified Organisms be Labeled”. AgBioForum, 1(1): 1-3.
Hopkinson, Jenny. “The Battle Lines on Food Labeling”. POLITICO.com, 2013. Pp. 1-4.
Schonwald, Josh. “Engineering the Future of Food”. Futurist 46.3 (2012): 24-28.