Ramblings on GMO Food Labels

Some of our popcorn freshly harvested last year. It's not GMO or organic. How would you label it?

There has been a lot of talk about whether or not food suppliers should be required to label foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). Consumer demand for this type of labeling seems to be growing along with an increased interest in learning how food gets from farm to table. The heated debate over so-called pink slime ought to be proof of that. Two opposing schools of thought prevail in the labeling debate. One line of thinking says science is on our side and that GMO has been around for a while now without any proven human health issues. The other side will tell you genetic engineering has no place in the food system, and foods containing GMO must be labeled so consumers can be better informed when making purchases.

If you’ve read this blog for very long you could probably correctly guess that I lean towards the science side of the issue. I would also argue that some of the loudest voices asking for labels to be required hope that GMO gets banned all together and believe organic production is the only way to go. Some proponents of biotechnology think labels would be just fine because labeling would help prove the safety of genetic engineering in the minds of eaters. Now although I believe biotechnology to be a safe and important agricultural tool I can also understand that consumers want to know what they are putting in their bodies. Animal husbandry expert Temple Grandin is in the news right now telling producers the general concerns of the population must be balanced with good science. She has taken some heat for that stance, but she is right. At the end of the day consumers are the ones who are able to vote with their dollars in the marketplace, and that alone should demand the attention of food producers.

I’m not saying good science should be thrown out the window. We farmers and ranchers need to be out front saying why we use the methods that we do as a way of informing consumers.

About Those Lables
We may not currently have a standard in the United States that requires foods containing GMO to be labeled as such, but we do have standards in place to prove that organic foods are in fact organically produced. One might think we don’t need GMO labels if food can be labeled certified organic. It’s not that easy. Obtaining and maintaining that certification takes a lot of hard work and planning. I have heard of farms that for all intents and purposes are organic or awfully close, but the last few steps to get certified may be cost prohibitive. It’s no wonder organic food often carries a premium price tag. There are plenty of foods that are neither GMO or organic. The popcorn on our farm falls into that category of not using GM seeds but not using organic production methods either. For me this presents a labeling conundrum.

I can easily see companies with products like popcorn jumping on a marketing bandwagon if GMO labeling became a requirement. Packaging for these foods could have bold markings claiming “GMO Free!” in very much the same fashion I discovered in the peanut butter aisle. Even if there is no such thing as a GMO almond (an assumption so correct me if I’m wrong) I can envision them being labeled GMO free anyway. I wouldn’t blame a company for trying to differentiate their product from the competition, but I think that kind of marketing is just a bit disingenuous.

Unfortunately, I see a potential problem with label laws. Would labeling GMO foods inadvertently raise the cost of these middle of the road foods? I think labeling laws could do just that. In my mind if one has to label a GMO product wouldn’t one also have to prove a product does not contain GMO in order to avoid the label? And wouldn’t that come at some additional cost which you and I know would be passed on to consumers? The obvious solution would be to just avoid the whole situation by tossing a label on the package that says “May contain genetically modified ingredients.” Even if you know your product is free of biotech will it always be worth it to prove that? If you can’t be organic and don’t want the extra cost and hassle of proving without a doubt you’re GMO free what else can be done?

Ramble On
The reason I put ramblings in the post title is due to the fact these thoughts really are just my ramblings. I purposely haven’t consulted any labeling experts or sought out any specific blogs posts or studies with links about what effects may or may not result from labeling. These are just my thoughts of the moment and I’d really appreciate your thoughts in a comment below.  I’m thinking out loud with a keyboard.  If we’re lucky maybe a real expert will appear!


  1. It is negative claims that appeal to buyers as a way to signal status, and that’s what this issue is mostly about. A product that claims to have no artificial ingredients, or no added sugar etc. is preferred to one that states its ingredients in the affirmative. One that is fat free or GMO free is appealing in the same way. Since that’s the labeling that actually works you are right to suspect an instrumental reason for anti-GMO activists. Their objective is to rid the land of them, science be damned.

    The cost issue to comply with such labeling is greater than you indicate. Consider what the grain elevator operator would have to do before mingling any load with his supposedly GMO free bin, and consider the consequences if just a few grains sneak in, and are discovered. The whole bin would be suspect. It’s a nightmare scenario that will be ripe for fraud, just like supposedly organic fertilizers that end up being spiked with ammonium to achieve useful and consistent value.

    In other words, this isn’t an issue that is subject to reason, evidence, regulation or implementation. It’s political wanking by true believers of fantastic things for no logical reason, and it isn’t the reality that matters it’s the rhetoric, the claims, the attitudes and beliefs. Get over it. That’s just how people are.

  2. http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2012/04/marketing-if-non-existence-latest.html

    — As American consumers, we frequently purchase food and beverage products based on what is not in them. Whether it is the level of an ingredient (low fat, low carb…) or the complete absence of an ingredient (fat free, no cholesterol, no HFCS…), products are now defined by what they do not contain, rather than what they do contain. This is such a common element of our experience that it does not even strike us as odd. If you step back and think about food from a historical or global perspective this is absurd; having enough food to survive has been a common issue for human survival. Instead, we have become numb to “The Marketing of Non-Existence.” —

  3. I have a couple of things that came to mind as I read this:
    – What do you think of the voluntary labeling standard in place with the FDA? Because the mandatory labels are for health & nutrition…. that makes GMO labeling fall into a different camp for me as I rely on the science, but I agree there is nothing to hide. There is a non GMO project that already offers a label for companies who want to distinguish their foods that way and its certainly used.
    – The “may contain” is something used with peanuts & other allergens that pose real health risks for people. So to me, it could easily appear that there is a health difference and I really have a problem with that as being misleading and think it creates fear.

    Just a few ramblings of my own. :)

    1. You do make an interesting point about mandatory labeling for health and nutrition, but I don’t think many people regard issues of health and nutrition as “settled science.” (Personally, I avoid “fat-free” labels like the plague – real food has fat – I’m more worried about what’s being used to replace the fat – usually empty calories!)
      The problem with non-GMO labeling, as Brian pointed out, is that it’s ripe for abuse and misleading marketing practices.
      As for fear, I’m not so sure – if the product they’ve been buying and eating for years and years suddenly pops up with GMOs listed in the ingredients, will most people make a switch, or just simply shrug and say “doesn’t seem to have hurt me so far.” I’m betting on the latter. But those who do care have the right to know, in my opinion, and this will create new markets for everyone in the food chain who views it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

      1. Would you agree then that most people probably don’t care? I myself probably don’t care. I watch for sugar, fat, and calories if I do check labels. Maybe sodium if I remember. I just like food that tastes good and try to eat fairly healthy with some splurges thrown in.

    2. I don’t mind voluntary labeling as long as it’s not done with scare tactics or misleading information. Janice, you know I like it when industry takes the lead on an issue if it means keeping bureaucracy out of it.

      In my opinion allergens are a potential risk of GMO in the case that a unexpected protein is expressed as the result of the biotech trait. I can’t recall at the moment, but wasn’t this somewhat the case with Starlink corn? Even though Starlink was never supposed to be used for human consumption. When I get time I’ll have to refresh my memory on that situation.

      1. Brian,

        Starlink corn was limited to animal feeding and industrial use because the specific Bt protein (Cry9C) was slow enough in digesting that they thought it might have allergenic effects. It is not that an unsuspected allergen showed up. To my knowledge, there were never any confirmed allergenicity reports from its entering the food supply.

  4. C’mon people, take off the blinders – we’re not reinventing the wheel here! If you wanted to do the research, rather than just rely on the claims of the GMO-apologists, there are dozens of countries around the world that require labeling of GMO foods. As well, there are thousands of (non-organic!) North American farmers who grow “identity-preserved” crops for export markets – the majority of them GMO-free. Given the array of tests available to detect GMO material, the comment that the scenario would be “ripe for fraud” simply doesn’t make any sense.

    Mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs would also resolve the conundrum of potentially misleading labels claiming GMO-free status for products which do not have a GMO version (your almond example). In practice, the default label would probably indicate the presence, or possible presence, of GMO ingredients; companies who wanted to avoid that label would need to make the investment to do so, and the market (consumers) would decide if that extra cost was justified. (I find it odd that some of those most opposed to GMO-labeling are also those most supportive of the so-called “free-market economy”).

    Oh, and by the way, there’s “good” and “bad” science on both sides of the GMO debate. Trying to frame this as an issue of “science” versus “non-science” is disingenuous. Otherwise, a thought-provoking post — look forward to seeing more discussion!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rob. I didn’t mean to imply there is no science on one side, but on some level you will have those who say science proves the safety of GMO and that is the whole argument. The other extreme almost has a morality “don’t mess with nature” mentality. That’s the trouble with these debates and others like politics, etc. Most of us likely fall in between the battle lines and don’t adhere rigidly to one camp. I try to keep in mind that when online I am often hearing the loudest and most passionate voices from either side of a given argument.

  5. All companies that sell products in Europe face the labeling requirements already. It was a bit shocking to me to return to the States after living in England for a while that things weren’t labeled. At that point, country of origin stickers weren’t yet on the produce, causing more culture shock – odd for someone returning to their own culture.

    Because of those labeling requirement, Europe seemed pretty close to a GMO free zone. (I didn’t research it, but labels indicating the presence of GMO were few and far between.) People steered away from those products.

    My partner is a biochemist, and after reading all the research (what he does with his spare time), he has no qualms about eating GMO food. I personally feel a bit like an unpaid guinea pig; then again, my part-time job is as a flavor tester – talk about experimental substances!

      1. Everything is in a clear solution. We are trained to be able to detect different levels of sweet (or fat or bitter or savory) between samples, even with another flavor introduced.

        We have no idea what we are sampling, and that is intentional: It could skew our answers if we knew what they were testing or trying to accomplish.

    1. In the fall of 2002 (I know because I just pulled out my transcript) I took Seed Technology at Purdue. It was a class of ten people and three of them were from Sweden I believe. One day we visited a local agronomic genetic research facility. These three students had many questions for the workers in the lab. They wondered if the technicians were concerned for their safety working around GMO all day long. You could tell they were apprehensive just being there. I wish I could remember more, but I think they came away feeling a bit better about GMO even if not totally sold on the idea. Mainly I recall realizing how just growing up in a different culture can make a big difference in your perspective on a subject.
      I got an A in that class by the way :-)

    2. “Because of those labeling requirement, Europe seemed pretty close to a GMO free zone. (I didn’t research it, but labels indicating the presence of GMO were few and far between.) People steered away from those products.”

      I think that is the crux of the matter for US food companies. If people avoid the GMO label for whatever reason, it means that companies will have to shift away from GM products. That is exactly what the anti-GM activists want. This would have the effect of taking away one of the most promising tools for improving crop varieties, when there is no evidence that the process or products are unsafe.

  6. There are three different types of labels around the world. The EU is a blanket label, no matter if the food product actually contains none the the protein created by the transgenic event. This happens regardless of safety approvals being achieved.

    The other is a two tiered system, such as what Japan has. Once safety approvals are achieved, if the protein is in the food labeling is mandatory to provide information to consumers. If the protein is not in the foodstuff, such as in vegetable oils, the label is voluntary.

    And the third is the North American system. If approved as safe, no label is required because safety is the purpose of the label. Negative or do not contain labels are marketing labels and nothing more.

  7. All GMO’s are not the same. If labeled, it should be separated into types of GMO’s. A plant genetically modified to give it better roots is not the same as a plant modified to produce the Bt toxin that kills insects. If you allow them all to be put under the same label, all get the “bad” label.
    We are going to need some of those modifications to feed the world in a few years, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
    All of our food products have been genetically modified in some way, it’s just that some have been modified in the laboratory and some in the selection of what we consider the best looking or tasting.
    It is all more hype. It’s like the label that says beef is “hormone free.” There is no such animal. All of life has hormones. We need to start putting caution labels on our cabbage and lettuce that shows that they contain more estrogen than beef.
    Those who are not hungry will select for what they consider to be better. Those who are hungry will eat what they can afford.

    1. I think for those who strongly advocate for labels the application of the genes does not matter. And of course they are referring to laboratory situations rather than traditional forms of breeding and selection. How many breeds of dogs and cats don’t exist in nature? We’ve bred many of them to suit our needs although not in the lab.

      It too have seen some of those figures on estrogen. http://wagfarms.com/2012/01/30/organic-romance/ Interesting stuff.

      We find ourselves in situations like this when the majority of us live in abundance. We have the luxury of having this debate. If I wasn’t sure I was going to eat tomorrow, I’m sure I wouldn’t care at all if my food is GMO or not.

  8. I share many of your same thought about GMO and labeling. I feel customer is always right and if public outcry is strong enough then label it. A voluteerarily GMO free working with a third party such as Food Alliance would be necessary to help assure that it is non GMO. I had read the Food Alliance doesn’t allow GMO crops and limits glyphosate applications.

  9. Would you want labelling on food that has been sprayed with roundup? I would. Did you know that GMO crops are sprayed with Glyphosate? I Was unaware. Glyphosate + additives according to Stephanie Seneff Of Mit Possibly cause health issues.Which need to be investigated. Check out interview on http://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/15/4/1416

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