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Should scientists support labeling GMOs?

On May 8, Vermont became the first state to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The law will go into effect in July 2016, and also prohibits labeling products containing GMOs as "natural." A labeling movement could be spreading nationally, with Connecticut and Maine having passed labeling laws that are contingent on neighboring states' adopting similar laws. According to the Center for Food Safety, which supports labeling, 60 labeling bills have been introduced in 20 states. The question is now whether such labels are useful for consumers, many of whom fail to understand the science of GMOs.

Studies show that a large percentage of people are fearful of GMOs. Last summer, a Gallup poll asked, "From what you know or have heard, do you believe that foods that have been produced using biotechnology pose a serious health hazard to consumers, or not?" Nearly half of respondents said yes, these foods are a hazard (36 percent said no and 16 percent did not know). A New York Times poll, also conducted last year, found that 93 percent of people support the identification of genetically modified ingredients and the largest cited concern was health effects (including cancer and asthma).

What does science tell us about the health effects of GMOs? According to recent concensus among several major scientific organizations, they're likely very safe. The journal Nature Biotechnology analyzed 20 years of studies looking at possible health effects of GMOs and concluded, "numerous national and international scientific panels have concluded that food derived through transgenic approaches is as safe as food produced in other ways, and that food-borne pathogens pose a much greater threat to human health."  Even before the rise of biotechnology, humans were genetically modifying crops for thousands of years by selectively breeding plants with certain traits. And because bioengineered GMOs can increase crop yield and decrease the need for pesticides, their use is arguably promoting health in developing nations by creating more sustainable food systems. On the flip side, many agree that additional long-term studies are needed to truly rule out any possible health effects that might not be visible from shorter-term studies.  

Opponents of mandatory GMO labeling fear that labels cause people to think that GMO food is unsafe, despite any scientific evidence supporting that notion. Indeed, this may be a valid concern. Because labeling has become increasingly misappropriated as a marketing tool, its effectiveness in steering consumers to make scientifically sound choices is grossly diminshed (see "gluten-free" labels on bananas and packages of meat, for example). 

In an ideal world, the general public would understand how GMOs are developed, as well as their different varieties. Like most debates about science, nuance is important here. As Dan Fagin wrote in Scientific American, "We can only dream about how different the outlook for GMO foods would be today if the world's first extensive experience with the technology had been a product like golden rice, engineered specifically to address a critical malnutrition problem, vitamin A deficiency, that blinds hundreds of thousands of children every year in Africa and Southeast Asia."

When many people think of GMOs, however, Roundup Ready soybeans are the first crop that comes to mind. This GMO is notorious because its prevalence may have led to greater pesticide use, in part because weeds mutated to become resistant to the pesticide Roundup. The resulting genetic drift led to contamination of non-Roundup Ready seeds. In fact, environmental concerns might be the most valid reason to label GMOs. If usage of certain GMOs creates a lack of biodiversity in our crops, for example, this could have devastating consequences down the line both for feeding people and for the planet, especially in the face of climate change.

While GMO-labeling and the lack of public understanding of GMO technology may make many scientists uncomfortable, the latter is the bigger issue. Unfortunately, it will take more than a law to fight science illiteracy.

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Summer Allen