Opinion: Food labeling — our right to consume or avoid GMOs

Elaina Sauber

Elaina Sauber

Elaina Sauber is a senior English major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].

Your college years may be some of the best of your life, but they’re probably not the healthiest. When I lived on campus, there was always a dining hall within walking distance, serving every kind of deep fried food or starchy pasta imaginable; most markets on campus even have vegetarian and gluten-free sections. If you’re lucky enough to live off-campus, you have a lot more options to choose from for groceries, though we sometimes become wrapped up in buying food advertised as “all-natural.” But a major question remains: What are we really putting into our bodies? And do we have a right to know?

Crops that “have had their genetic sequencing artificially restructured” are known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. On Nov. 5, Washington state residents will vote on “Initiative 522,” a bill focused on “transparency in the food system.” The initiative would require genetically engineered food products and seeds to be labeled accordingly. If passed, Washington will be the first state to implement labeling of GMOs, compared to last fall, when California voters narrowly vetoed Proposition 37, a similar initiative that would have required all “genetically modified and engineered foods” be labeled as such and prohibited labeling GMOs with the word “natural.” Outside the U.S, 64 countries require the labeling of GMOs, including the European Union, which has a “single mandatory genetically engineered food labeling regulation,” according to the Center for Food Safety.

Since genetically engineered food products hit the market in 1994, the FDA has deemed them as safe to consume. However, there have been rising concerns in the past 20 years about how safe GMOs really are because companies such as Monsanto are not required to prove their safety before they hit the shelves, so the food is simply considered safe because there isn’t solid evidence yet to suggest the contrary.

It’s certainly safe to say that GMOs aren’t going anywhere, considering that 95 percent of the nation’s sugar beets, 94 percent of the soybeans, 90 percent of the cotton and 88 percent of the feed corn are genetically modified, according to the 2011 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications report. Many processed foods also contain GMO ingredients because of their sugar, as “42 percent of the sugar Americans consume comes from genetically engineered sugar beets, the rest from sugar cane.”

Just about any food product in the U.S. can be labeled as “natural” except for meat and poultry, but the term itself is loaded, as there are no clear-cut requirements a product must meet in order to be labeled natural.

Americans have been consuming GMOs for the past 20 years, yet the effects of our consumption are still unclear — this is why they need to be labeled. Consumers are not only kept ignorant of food products containing GMOs but are directly lied to when they buy a product advertised as “natural,” and the very genotype of its ingredients is altered. It’s a simple solution: Label GMOs and allow the consumer to decide what they want to eat. If Washington passes Initiative 522, other states will likely follow; perhaps one day, this will open the door to extensive studies of GMOs and their effects — good and bad.