Our View: It's tough to 'know your food' without GMO labels

If you poured yourself a bowl of cereal this morning, odds are that some of its ingredients were genetically engineered.

Genetically modified organisms are found in 60 percent to 70 percent of the processed foods on U.S. supermarket shelves, according to the Center for Food Safety. Yet, if you check the back of the box, you're not going to find any mention of genetically engineered ingredients — unless you bought the item from a grocer that requires GMO labeling, such as Trader Joe's or Whole Foods Market.

That soon could change. GMO-labeling legislation has been introduced in at least 25 states, including Minnesota, but only Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws. The Connecticut and Maine measures are conditional — they won't be enacted until contiguous states follow suit.

GMOs are plants or animals that have had their genes altered with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria or viruses to get desired traits such as improved flavor, disease resistance or pesticide tolerance. Opponents of labeling requirements argue that farmers throughout history have cross-bred their crops and animals to create desired hybrids.

While that's true, the difference is that "old-school" cross-breeding relies on the natural reproduction of the organisms. Genetic engineering sometimes adds genes that do not occur naturally in varieties of that plant or animal.


Last year, Rep. Karen Clark, a DFLer from Minneapolis, introduced a GMO-labeling bill in the Minnesota House, and Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville, introduced a companion bill in the Senate. The legislation would have required a neutral "Produced with Genetic Engineering" label on foods containing GMO ingredients. The bills were referred to committee and never came up for a vote.

The issue is expected to emerge again in the 2014 session as other organizations call for transparency in food labeling. Just last month, the Minnesota Farmers Union endorsed mandatory GMO labels at its annual convention.

"Without labeling, there is no way to understand public health impacts or conduct epidemiological research," said Jim Riddle, a Winona-area organic farmer who is a member of the Farmers Union. "Let's face it, these are novel, patented organisms that have never before been part of nature or part of the human diet. There simply has not been sufficient research to establish their safety, and there's ample cause for concern."

More than 60 countries worldwide require the labels, while more than 20 nations have an outright ban on GMO products. American support for GMO labeling ranges from 80 percent to 93 percent, depending on which survey you're consulting.

Elsewhere in the United States, GMO labeling has gone directly to the voters. Ballot initiatives narrowly failed last month in Washington state and in California in 2012. Agricultural conglomerates poured $22 million into the Washington campaign and paid $37 million to defeat California initiative.

So far, the FDA does not require foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled because it considers them "functionally equivalent" to conventionally grown crops. Companies use the FDA policy to defend the products and produce scientific studies back up safety claims. However, there are also studies showing GMO links to human and animal health problems, as well as environmental damage. The long-term effects are unclear, as the first GMO product approved for human consumption — the "Flavr Savr" tomato — was introduced only in 1994.

If you don't trust GMO products, you shouldn't have to buy them — but right now, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether the food you put into your shopping cart was produced using GMOs.

We support mandatory GMO labeling. Safety concerns aside, we have a right to know what is in the food we're buying.

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