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Should GMOs be Labeled?

Here's why we think GMO foods should be labeled



This post was first published in a condensed form on STAT News. We owe them many thanks for all the help they provided editing and prepping this piece for publication.

At ZBiotics, we make genetically engineered probiotics, purpose-built to improve our health and wellbeing. And as a genetic engineering company, we support the mandatory labeling of GMOs. We support it because it’s better for the public, and it’s better for the world.

Today, the conversation around genetic engineering of food and drinks is characterized 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 who choose to play both sides take advantage of everyone – adding GMO ingredients to one product and “non-GMO” labels to another.

If we’re ever going to move past the polarized state we find ourselves in, it’s going to be the result of GMO transparency. Not obscurity. 

Afraid of GMOs? Blame non-labeling

Genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) are commonplace – present in many of the foods we eat — often, though not exclusively, in the form of genetically modified food like corn, soy, sugar beet, and canola oil. But as ubiquitous as they are, they’re shrouded in mystery. Across most of the United States, GMO food ingredients are unlabeled. 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 genetically modified foods 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 GMO visibility would ultimately limit public concern.

But that was a mistake. Not labeling GMOs only stoked the concern it was intended to minimize.

Perversely, the only products that present transparent GMO labels are those that do not contain GMOs. Walk down a grocery aisle today and you can find out more about non-genetically modified products than about GMO products. 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 genetically modified foods 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 GMO conversation – one sparked at root by a lack of GMO labeling.

It’s time to label GMOs

At ZBiotics, we’re advocating a new approach – one we believe is essential to the long-term viability of genetic engineering technology and its potential to benefit the world.

As a genetic engineering company, we support mandatory labeling of GMO products.

We support it because, simply stated, it is better for the public, which will be fully informed and less confused when considering genetically modified products – our own included.

And it’s 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.

Clear mandatory labeling will strip away the mystery from GMOs. The confusion dominating the GMO 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."

Blog Image - GMO Labeling - Vermont Jolly Rancher
Example of the Vermont law in action. Source: NY Times

Contrary to popular expectations, people didn’t stop buying genetically modified food and drinks. Instead, a recent study showed that Vermonters grew less opposed to GMOs, and popular sentiment towards GMOs actually improved.

Blog Image - Vermont Study Graph.large
Estimated effects of mandatory labels on concern/opposition to GE foods in Vermont. Source: Science Advances

Labeling only works 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.


Sample GMO disclosure using QR code.

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.

People 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 we’re labeling our own products as “GMO” and “genetically engineered,” using easily understood text, today. In addition, we chose to use the clearest version of USDA’s new label options: the circular “Bioengineered” icon.

Every ZBiotics Bottle
Every ZBiotics bottle.
Every ZBiotics Box
Every ZBiotics box.

It’s not just that transparency is the right thing for consumers. We’re proud of the fact that we use genetic engineering. It’s why our products work and the reason they stand to have a positive effect on the world. As a team of microbiologists, chemists, and bioengineers, this incredible technology is core to who we are, and we couldn’t be happier about that.

Some could see the impact of one small company’s labeling choices as limited. That is why we are inviting others to help us develop a clear labeling vocabulary – one made for a new wave of genetic engineering companies like ourselves. Those who care about their customers, who value transparency over obscurity, and who want the best for this technology and for the planet.

Big changes start with small choices. At ZBiotics, we choose to label.