ONE OF THE Obama administration’s final acts in
2016 was passing Bill S764, a bill legislating that all foods
containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be
labelled. It’s the first law passed in the United States having to
do with GMO labeling. As such, it’s sparked a lot of
conversation as to why the government should or shouldn’t
take steps to control the consumption of these foods. There’s
no crystal ball we can look through to see the future of GMOs;
however, it seems this bill was an unnecessary measure, one
that highlights how incorrect knowledge leads to poor
The Birth of the Bill
Bill S764 came into existence mostly because of the
years of pressure that anti-GMO lobbyists have placed on the
federal and state governments. They’ve argued that GMO
foods are dangerous, that we have a right to know what we’re
eating, and that most Americans want GMOs to be labeled.
According to them, a GMO label should satisfy both those for
and against the purchase of these foods, as it allows both to
choose whether to buy them. They make compelling claims
that were, apparently, convincing enough to influence lawmakers.
However, while there is a degree of truth behind their
assertions, a close inspection of the meat of their argument
shows that it is not quite prime grade.
So, are GMOs safe?
Of the thousands of studies that have been performed
on GMOs since they were introduced to the marketplace in the
early 1990’s, there have been a few that have found adverse
effects of their consumption on health. These studies may have
even found their way onto your Facebook or Twitter feed;
GMO opponents have actively circulated them over the
internet, which has resulted in the widespread misconception
that GMO foods lead to cancer, heart disease, allergic
reactions, and other health problems.
However, thousands of other studies have found
otherwise, and report no increased health risks. In fact, in June
2014, 109 Nobel Laureates—10 of whom earned prizes in their
respective scientific fields—published a letter online,
reassuring the public that GMOs are safe, and calling on
opponents to stop spreading GMO myths (if they had tweeted it
instead, more of us might have seen it too). Additionally, some
researchers have reexamined studies in which GMO foods
were shown to cause harm, and found that the prevalence was
too weak to be attributed to anything but chance.
What GMO opponents forget is that we’re about three
decades into research; while they assert that thirty years have
brought us to no concrete conclusions and insist on further
testing, the truth is that the scientific community has come to a
near consensus on the safety of GMO food consumption.
Even the USDA is on board. According to their
“standards guidelines” for food producers, before any GMO
can come to market, it must undergo extensive testing to ensure
that the content of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients is not
inadvertently altered during the final process. In other words,
GMO foods have the same nutrition content as their nonmodified
So, in answer to the question, “Are GMOs dangerous?”
I would say that GMOs are just as dangerous as normal food.
Can GMO foods kill you? Yes. GMO apple slices are just as
likely to get lodged in your throat as their natural sister-foods,
which could result in suffocation. Anything one can do, so can
the other—but not necessarily any better.
Ignorance is Bliss
Supporters of the bill have said that we need to know
what’s in our food to make healthy decisions, yet by examining
the current health situation of the US, it seems that knowing the
contents of food has resulted in very few, if any, health
benefits. According to the US Department of Health and
Human Services, one in three adults in the US is obese, and
one in three children are overweight or obese. These rates are
about double of what they were in the 1980’s. Keeping in mind
that the nutrition contents and ingredients of nearly every food
bought in the US are clearly labeled—a requirement that was
only legislated in 1990—it’s hard to find a correlation between
increased labeling and improved health.
In fact, one could argue that food labels are more likely
to influence poor health choices than to help the consumer. At
the grocery store you can find a lot of labels, all of which are
cleverly placed to impact consumer decisions. “Sugar-free,”
says the box of Splenda-cookies. “Saturated fat free!” says the
bottle of soda. “Now ½ the salt!” says the pepperoni pizza.
While these assertions may not be lies, they are a
distraction. A decoy, used to avert our attention from the more
sinister nature of the food item, like the mask hiding the
Phantom’s grizzled face. Just like our favorite opera villain,
these foods have something to hide. And funnily enough, even
when we know deep down that the foods are not healthy, we
justify their purchase, and fall victim, like the innocent
Christine Daae, to their wicked designs.
Similarly, a GMO label isn’t going to help the
consumer to make healthy choices, but instead be used as a
ploy to deceive him. I can already see food marketers stamping
a big bright “GMO-free” label onto “all-natural” (whatever that
means) junk foods, swindling customers into buying them.
“Well, I know it’s not healthy, but at least it doesn’t have
High Cost, Little Reward
While the effects that Bill S764 will have on public
health are unclear, we can almost be certain that it will take a
big bite out of the public’s wallet. Laws don’t come cheap.
This new law isn’t as simple as forcing food producers to print
a bunch of cheap stickers to punch onto all their GMO food
products. With a new mandate like Bill S764, government
bureaus will be opened nation-wide; these will have to oversee
standard setting, implement certification efforts, and supervise
public enforcement at all levels of food production. That’s just
the spending that will come out of taxes.
Yet, while government work isn’t cheap, the greatest
costs will be incurred at every stage of food preparation,
starting with farming. Farmers who grow plants from both
GMO and non-GMO seed will be responsible for keeping these
foods separate. To do so, they’ll need to spend additional time
and money, hiring extra hands and purchasing extra equipment.
This will also require intensive supervision; a mess-up could
lead to a lawsuit. Companies that buy raw materials from those
farmers will have to do the same. Who pays for all of these
pricy precautions? The consumer—you and me. One study
estimates that, because of these needed measures, retail prices
of food could increase by up to 10%.
Now, I’m a college student on a tight budget, just like
many of you. I work in the summers, pay my taxes and tithing
(don’t worry about the order…), then try to make whatever’s
left last for the next eight months. The thought of spending
10% more at the grocery store every week is not something
that excites me.
But it’s what the people want!
Despite the evidence that GMOs are safe and that this
bill will be costly, we’re still left with the source-based
argument that most Americans want GMOs to be labelled,
which was perhaps what most influenced the government to
make its decision.
The studies could very well be true; however, it’s much
easier for a person to say “yes” to GMO labels in an
anonymous survey than it is to pay 10 cents more on the dollar
for those labeled foods. The facts about GMOs and the
logistics of label implementations are not very well-known,
which could explain why the people surveyed responded how
they did. These surveys take advantage of uninformed
respondents; a little education would go a long way in
providing useful survey results.
When all is said and done, only God knows what “will
shortly come to pass” as a result of this law. But in the
meantime, it’s left a lot of people with arms crossed and
eyebrows raised. Personally, I count myself among them. Now,
some might point the finger at Washington and blame the
government for passing a bad bill; but if our government really
is “by the people, for the people,” shouldn’t it do what “we the
people” want it to? According to many surveys, it did just that.
The problem is, as shown with this law, sometimes we
just don’t want what’s good for us.