The conversation around genetic engineering and food is undermined by a lack of information that breeds confusion and distrust. Consumers feel misled. Scientists feel misunderstood. Public officials make flailing attempts to navigate the interests of both. Meanwhile, the companies that choose to play both sides take advantage of everyone — quietly adding genetically modified organisms (GMO) or ingredients made from them to some products and non-GMO labels to others.
If we’re ever going to move past the polarized state we find ourselves in, it’s going to be the result of transparency.
My company, ZBiotics, makes genetically engineered probiotics to improve health and well-being. We support mandatory labeling of GMO products because it’s better for the public, and it’s better for the world. Even though GMO labeling isn’t a true mandate in the U.S. just yet, we’re already doing it.
Afraid of GMOs? Blame non-labeling
Genetically modified organisms are commonplace, and are already present in many of the foods we eat — often, though not exclusively, in the form of genetically modified corn, soy, sugar beet, and canola oil. But as ubiquitous as they are, they’re shrouded in mystery. Across most of the United States, foods made with GMO ingredients don’t bear labels attesting to that. They don’t need to mention genetic engineering on the label or elsewhere. As a result, most of us don’t know how often we eat foods containing GMOs or their byproducts.
Why the obscurity? Genetic engineering can be challenging to explain and to understand. In the past, scientists and companies responded to that challenge by lobbying against GMO labeling, hoping that limiting the visibility of this technology would ultimately limit public concern.
But that was a mistake. Not labeling products made with GMOs only stoked the concern it was intended to minimize.
Perversely, the only products that bear transparent GMO labels are those that do not contain GMOs. Walk down a grocery aisle today and you can find out more about non-GMO products than about GMO ones. There’s an irony here, given that GMO products are often more rigorously tested and studied before being sold than their non-GMO alternatives.
The consequences of this labeling asymmetry aren’t surprising: People are concerned about the safety of consuming foods that contain GMOs or their byproducts. Questions naturally arise like, “If GMOs are really safe, why do food companies keep hiding them from us?”
Such questions emerge despite strong scientific consensus that the technology underlying GMOs is completely safe — a position endorsed time and again by unbiased sources like the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But with GMOs hidden from public view, it’s understandable that people still question it.
That questioning is exacerbated by the fact that obscurity-based questions about GMO safety are often conflated with actual concerns about GMO business practices. Issues like unsafe herbicide use and the ethics of human genetic editing are completely legitimate. But because these issues are often confused with questions about the safety of food made from genetically modified organisms, they make it easy to write off genetic engineering as altogether problematic.
The result is an increasingly confused and polarized conversation about GMOs — one rooted in the lack of GMO labeling.
It’s time to label GMOs
You might expect a company that creates GMO-based products would want the issue of labeling to disappear. We don’t. In fact, we support mandatory labeling of all GMO products.
Mandatory labeling is good for consumers because it will help them be fully informed and less confused when they consider buying GMO products. It is also better for the world, which can benefit from increased understanding and use of genetic engineering technology — technology that is already being developed to help us tackle problems like starvation, disease, and climate change.
Mandatory labeling will strip away the mystery. The confusion dominating the conversation will dissipate.
This isn’t just a theory. Early data show that clear, simple GMO labeling works to allay concerns and confusion. In July 2016, the state of Vermont required foods made with GMOs or their byproducts be labeled with this simple message: “Produced with genetic engineering” or “Partially produced with genetic engineering.”
Contrary to popular expectations, people didn’t stop buying GMO products. In fact, a 2018 study showed that Vermonters grew less opposed to GMOs, and popular sentiment toward these products actually improved.
Labeling works only if it’s transparent
Vermont’s labeling law — by all accounts clear and simple in application — was a good start. It was my hope that it would be extended across the United States as part of a 2016 federal law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (which is part of Public Law 114-214). That federal law — effective this year — mandates disclosure of certain bioengineered foods under a final rule written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the new rule leaves much to be desired.
It provides plenty of “outs” to companies not wanting to be transparent about whether their products contain GMOs or ingredients made from them. Instead of requiring a simple symbol or text disclosure, as Vermont did, the USDA rule lets companies use opaque workarounds like QR codes and call-in phone numbers to disclose their use of genetic engineering.
Equally worrisome is the rule’s definition of bioengineered (BE) products — its proxy term for GMO. It is so lax that it allows thousands of products to avoid mandatory labeling even though they are genetically engineered by any popular definition of the term. Here’s an example: If the predominant ingredient in a product is egg, meat, or poultry, that product is excluded from the GMO labeling requirement even if all the remaining ingredients are genetically engineered.
We need truly transparent labeling
The new rule doesn’t help anybody. It does little to clear up the confusion that already exists and creates a mixed standard in which some GMO-based products are labeled and some are not. This is even more confusing than not labeling at all.
Consumers deserve clear, consistent labeling that tells them what they want to know when shopping for food: Is a product made with genetically modified organisms or not, according to their understanding of that term rather than a statutory definition riddled with exceptions. The label should be immediately understood and uniform, like a universal icon or a piece of easily understood text.
The USDA’s rule did not accomplish that. But with so much at stake, we can’t afford to wait until it generates the next rule.
That’s why ZBiotics is now labeling its products as “GMO” and “genetically engineered,” using easily understood text. In addition, we chose to use the clearest version of the USDA’s new label options: the circular “Bioengineered” icon.
It’s not just that transparency is the right thing to do for consumers. If done right, companies should be proud of the fact that they use genetic engineering.
The impact of one small company’s choice to label all of its products as genetically engineered is limited. That’s why we are inviting others to help us develop a clear labeling vocabulary made for a new wave of genetic engineering companies: those who care about their customers, who value transparency over obscurity, and who want the best for this technology and for the planet.
Stephen Lamb is the co-founder and chief operating officer of ZBiotics.