During a recent grocery shopping trip, I couldn’t help but shake my head when I saw a carton of strawberries bearing a non-GMO label. Of course the strawberries are not genetically engineered — there are no genetically engineered strawberries approved for commercial production or sale in the United States or anywhere in the world. Sadly though, more and more companies are slapping non-GMO labels onto products for which there is no GMO equivalent crop.
And that’s a big problem.
Genetic modification is a breeding tool that utilizes modern molecular genetic engineering (GE) techniques to produce crops with desirable or beneficial traits. The technology has allowed us to create non-browning apples, herbicide-resistant soybeans, and corn that can protect itself from worms. Of course, the potential for future crops is endless. However, there are currently only 10 genetically engineered crops available for commercial production and sale. These include soybeans, corn (field and sweet), Arctic Apples, White Russet potatoes, canola, cotton, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beets, and summer squash. Scientific consensus agrees that these crops are just as safe as their non-GMO counterparts.
But for consumers who aren’t as familiar with agriculture and biotechnology, the presence of non-GMO labels on every product under the sun creates confusion and breeds fear. When a shopper sees a package of strawberries boldly proclaiming their non-GMO status, the implication is that other strawberries must be genetically modified. Of course, if the non-GMO strawberries are so excited to let that shopper know that they haven’t been modified, then that must mean the product is better than GMO strawberries.
Opinion surveys measuring public perception reflect this reality. One such study conducted in 2015 by Health Focus International found that 87 percent of consumers globally think that non-GMO foods are healthier. A similar survey of just American shoppers by Packaged Facts found that 43 percent of Americans agreed that GMOs are not safe to eat. For a retailer that’s looking to sell more products or charge an additional premium this is the marketing opportunity of the century!
Unfortunately, the food labeling regulatory scheme in the United States is not really equipped to handle this problem. This past July, President Obama signed into law a mandatory GMO labeling law. The law requires labeling for all products containing genetically engineered ingredients, but allows companies to comply with the law by placing a QR code or telephone number on the label. The legislation was a hard fought compromise that pitted those opposed to biotechnology against farmers and agriculture companies that appreciate its benefits. Unfortunately, the law does nothing to address the misleading non-GMO labels that are popping up on products that have no GMO equivalent.
Unlike the United States, Canada does not have mandatory GMO labeling. The country does, however, have regulations governing food labels and advertising claims pertaining to the use or non-use of genetic engineering. The Canadian General Standards Board developed the regulations known as the “Voluntary labelling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering” to create a consistent, verifiable standard with set parameters. The standard ensures that non-GMO labeling is informative, understandable, verifiable, and not false or misleading.
Included in the standards is the prohibition of claiming that a product — whether made from a single ingredient or multiple ingredients — is not made with genetic engineering if there are no genetically engineered ingredients available for sale. In other words, it is against Canada’s food labeling laws to put a non-GMO label on a package of strawberries, because there are no GMO strawberries for sale.
Sadly, this law is woefully unenforced and Canadians are seeing products labeled non-GMO for which there has never been a commercially available GMO product. That’s unfortunate because a law like this could go a long way toward reducing fear and confusion in the grocery store, and establishing integrity in the food labeling system.
That’s precisely why the United States should adopt this law as well. If the non-GMO labels for products that are non-GMO by default aren’t misleading, I’m not sure what is. If we allow these types of labels to go unchecked, we shouldn’t be surprised when consumers think that tomatoes with syringes sticking out of them is precisely how genetically modified crops are created. Or, for that matter, that tomatoes are a genetically modified crop (they aren’t)! Adopting a law similar to Canada’s — and enforcing it — could go a long way toward protecting consumers from false implications and higher prices.
That’s the kind of GMO labeling law we should have in the United States.