What’s Behind a Label & Why We Need One

By Katey Parker
(Partnerships & Media Manager, Just Label It)

A recent editorial by the Scientific American, titled “Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea”, argues that requiring labels on genetically engineered (GE) foods would instill unnecessary fear and rejection of these foods in an already skeptical American public, in addition to road blocking strides in agricultural production and feeding the world’s growing population.

Yet the truth is that the PR machines from the biotech industry are performing far better than the actual results of their crops. The companies that develop and market GE crops and foods have made bold promises of reduced pesticide use, increased yield and solving world food shortages, but a look at the facts shows that these promises have yet to be realized.

Unsatisfactory GE Crop Performance

One of the first independent reports to measure the yield impact of GE crops, published in 2009 by experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, concluded:

“Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterize the agriculture of the twentieth century.”

Other data suggests that some GE crops actually generate lower yields than non-GE varieties. For example, field trials of soybeans found a 50 percent drop in the yield of GE varieties because of gene disruption. And hybrid corn varieties engineered with the Bt bacterium to produce a pest-killing protein were slower to develop and ultimately had a 12 percent lower yield than non-GE varieties.

When it comes to improving drought performance, GE crops have again fallen short. Initial field trials of the first USDA approved drought resistant crop, Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn, showed an increase in corn productivity of just 1 percent, no better than traditional breeding techniques and improved farming practices that have also increased drought tolerance in U.S. corn by 1 percent a year – without the high costs and decades of development of genetically engineered versions.

Feeding the World: An Unfulfilled Promise

In terms of solving the world food crisis, biotechnology has yet to provide a sustainable solution, and has only resulted in a handful of costly and unsuccessful experiments.  For example, a virus-resistant African sweet potato was introduced in Uganda at a cost of $6 million in development funds, only to find it had low yields and was not resistant to the local virus it was created to fight. Later, a conventional breeding project produced a virus-resistant strain for a much smaller investment.

Additionally, by pouring money into solutions with a narrow focus, such as using genetically engineered rice to solve Vitamin A deficiency, we are pulling farther and father away from issues like food access and availability, which could provide regions with more diverse and nutritionally adequate food sources, rather than forcing reliance on one (potentially unproductive) crop.

In 2010, a UN General Assembly Report concluded that the key to improving prospects for small and subsistence level farmers is basic technical assistance and training and use of agro-ecological practices, not genetic engineering.  According to the report, these practices could increase yields in developing countries in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia by more than 100 percent, essentially doubling yields while reducing pesticide use by 85 percent or more.

Increased Chemical Use

Despite assurances to Congress and regulators over the last two decades that crops engineered to be herbicide resistant would lead to less chemical usage, a peer-reviewed paper published last summer showed that the three major GE crops in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, and cotton – have increased overall herbicide use by more than 527 million pounds between 1996 – 2011, compared to what it likely would have been in the absence of GE crops.

Farmers growing GE crops have had to rely on massive increases in toxic herbicide use, grappling with the evolution of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” and “superbugs” and struggling with their growing dependence on the patented seeds that cause these very problems. This approach leads to a dangerous, toxic dead end, one that will leave the landscape infested with ever more varieties of resistant superweeds while undermining efforts at safe, sustainable farming. The technology is a real moneymaker for the industry, which charges much more for the GE seeds, and then sells more herbicide to the farmers planting the seeds.

Lack of Appropriate Testing

Because GMOs are not labeled in the U.S., they might be causing acute or chronic effects, but scientists would have a very hard time recognizing the linkages between GE food intake and unexplained problems.  Studying GE food-human health linkages without labeling is like searching for a needle in a haystack with gloves on.

Unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for human health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and limited testing for allergenicity.

Our government’s approval of these crops has been based almost exclusively on studies conducted or funded by the chemical companies who own these patented crops to prove that GE food is “substantially equivalent” to its non-GE counterpart.  More research needs to be done to confirm these results and determine whether consumption of GE crops is introducing new toxins into our bodies. Until we know without a doubt that GE crops are safe to eat, we should have a choice about whether we want to eat them.

No Cost For Labeling

One of the most common arguments amongst the opponents of last year’s Prop 37 initiative was that labeling would add an unnecessary cost to consumers, as much as $400 per family per year.  Yet this research was based on a set of assumptions that extend far beyond the label changes, including the substitution of ingredients by food processors and significant changes in shopper’s purchasing behavior.

In reality, label changes are a minor element in the complexity of pricing considerations. Food processors regularly make changes to the labels of their products to meet changing consumer demand or for other marketing or regulatory reasons.  Label redesigns happen frequently, adding ‘new’ attributed to existing products, such as different flavors and new ingredients, communicating these product improvements to shoppers.  If the technology behind GE ingredients is revolutionary, why not advertise it? What is there to hide?


It is worth noting that genetically engineered crops are facing increased scrutiny and rejection not just in the U.S.  Already 64 countries demand that GE foods be labeled, including China, Russia, and all of the European Union, and many have banned their cultivation or refused to import them. This state of affairs warrants a serious discussion of the risks of overreliance on GE products.

Someday more sophisticated biotechnology techniques may succeed in increasing crop yields and reducing water needs and chemical use in agriculture, but applied biotechnology to date has not achieved those worthy goals. To the contrary, it has consistently failed to meet expectations while raising new concerns about safety, health and sustainability.

Debates about the benefits and risks of GE crops will continue. Meanwhile, an entire generation will have grown up consuming them. We should all have a choice about whether we want to participate in this grand experiment with our bodies and our environment. We have a right to know what’s in our food.

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