Monday, September 27, 2010

Labeling Genetically Engineered Food

     We all have gone to the supermarket and bought groceries. Buying and eating food from the store is an important part of life here in the United States. Unbeknownst to you, some of the food that you have eaten has probably been genetically engineered. You most likely have not noticed it because it is not very much different than naturally grown food. Genetically engineered food is just as healthy for you, even more so in some cases, and it is usually better looking and tasting. Despite the obvious desirability of better looking and better tasting food, a growing controversy today in the agricultural world is that of the labeling of genetically engineered or modified produce. Should you be able to tell, when you go to the grocery store, whether or not your food has been genetically modified? Some may think that this is a good idea and that consumers need to know. However, why should we know if our food was genetically engineered or not? The food still tastes good and is just as healthy as naturally grown food. So what is the big issue? Why should we spend millions of dollars, raising the price of producing food as well as the price of the food itself, just to satisfy some people’s desires to know the process their food went through before it came to the store? The mandatory labeling of genetically engineered produce is cost ineffective, unnecessary, and should not be implemented.
     First of all, importance lies in an informed opinion, so we need to examine and find out what exactly constitutes genetically engineered food. And in doing so, we need to define what food we are dealing with. The topic at hand is the genetic engineering of produce, the crops and plants that farmers harvest and sell to the supermarkets and grocery stores. This is a different issue than injecting cows with growth hormones to make them produce more meat for the market. According to the United States Government, “Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be ‘genetically modified,’ ‘genetically engineered,’ or ‘transgenic’” (“Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms”). So basically, a food product is considered one of these terms if someone combines some of its genes with those of another food product in order to produce a resultant product with a combination of the genes of the two parent products.
     Moreover, it is important to realize that much of the fear surrounding genetically modified foods is unfounded. The main reason for genetic engineering of produce is to produce desirable traits in the offspring. Some of the major traits that are produced in genetically engineered produce are: reduced time to plant maturity, increased nutrients and yields, better resistance to disease and pests, and improved taste and quality (“Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms”). These are all very legitimate goals and should be treated as such. They are not, on the other hand, damaging food or increasing health risks for the consumer. Conversely, genetically modified food is in development to benefit human health. For example, in development right now is a “sweet potato resistant to a virus that could decimate most of the African harvest, rice with increased iron and vitamins that may alleviate chronic malnutrition in Asian countries, and a variety of plants able to survive weather extremes” (“Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms”), showing that much good can be accomplished through the genetic engineering of produce.
     Mandatory labeling of genetically modified products has been implemented in several nations throughout the world, such as Japan as well as several countries of the European Union. Support for mandatory labeling in the United States has come about with growing anticipation as well. Currently in the United States, the policy is that no mandatory labeling system is implemented. Farmers may, at their wish, determine whether or not they label their produce as genetically engineered or not. This is a far better system than mandatory labeling. Some farmers may deem it more cost effective to label their products as genetically engineered, hoping that their product will be seen as better as and healthier than the other produce available. In this case, the farmer would do well to label his produce. Another policy currently in effect from the FDA is that products must be labeled as genetically modified if they are extremely different from the original product (Huffman 3). An example of this situation would be a giant tomato or corn with extremely large kernels. The issue at hand is different, however. The matter we are considering deals with the labeling of products that could not otherwise be determined by the consumer as being natural or genetically engineered.
     With mandatory labeling, however, as opposed to voluntary, there are many more factors to consider. The concern brought about is that everything would have to be labeled, whether it is genetically engineered or not. This imposes a very high cost both to the producer and also to the consumer. Along with the label telling whether or not a product is genetically engineered, it is necessary to explain to the consumer on the label just what exactly genetic engineering is and what it does to the product. Also, non – genetically engineered products cannot be labeled in such a way that designates that genetic engineering affects the product in an adverse way (Huffman 3), meaning that non genetically engineered food cannot delegate itself as being safer or healthier solely because it is not genetically engineered. An additional cost to the millions of dollars it will take to label every product put up for sale is the cost of verifying the claims made by the farmers as to whether or not their product is genetically engineered. According to Julie Caswell, an expert in the field of agrobiotechnology, “Labeling affects the entire supply chain for food products. It requires definition of the attribute to be labeled and segregation of products with and without the characteristics throughout the supply chain from seed inputs to the supermarket shelf” (Caswell). This brings into the picture a whole new set of problems. For example, if a field of corn that has been enhanced through genetic engineering is adjacent to a field of corn that grows naturally, the concept of labeling suggests that each farmer’s produce must be labeled accurately. This will involve painstakingly difficult scrutiny of each farmer and their fields. If the farmer with naturally grown corn has machinery that accidentally brushes up against his neighbor’s corn, the whole crop harvested by that machinery will be contaminated and cannot be labeled as free of genetic engineering. As you can imagine, the costs for monitoring the labeling of crops is very high. And where will this cost be passed on? To the consumers, of course. The prices of all produce in the supermarkets will increase as a result of mandatory labeling. This will effectively act similar to an increase in taxes. Lower income families, who spend more of their income on food anyway, will sink deeper into poverty with the heightened prices of produce as a result of mandatory labeling (Huffman 5). Thus we need to ask ourselves if these great costs are worth the small amount of knowledge to be gained from the labels on produce.
     In addition to the cost incurred as a result of mandatory labeling, the whole idea of mandatory labeling warrants the label itself as irrational and unnecessary. The FDA already requires labeling of products if alterations from their original state take place. This is all that should be needed. If no obvious alterations are present, then why does the consumer need to know? There is nothing dangerous about the genetic alteration of produce. It is certainly not adding anything such as poison or pesticides to the produce. For years, pesticide use on produce has been debated, but as of today no labeling system has been implemented regarding their use. And pesticides have been proven in some cases to be detrimental to human health. So why should genetic modifications be labeled, when no evidence is relevant concerning their harm to human health? All things considered, mandatory labeling just seems silly and there is no reason for it to be declared on labels for consumers to read. The government of the United States makes it priority for its citizens to be safe. The FDA has been doing its job correctly, and it would not let produce go out on shelves for us to buy if it was dangerous. It is time we put faith in our government and accept things the way that they are, genetically modified or not.

Works Cited
Caswell, Julie A. "Labeling Policy For GMOs: To Each His Own?." AgBioForum. (2000). 25 Oct 2005 . “Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms.” Human Genome Project Information. 17 Sept 2004. The Human Genome Program of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. 27 Oct. 2005 .
Huffman, Wallace E., Jason F. Shogren, Matthew Rousu, and Abe Tegene. "The Value to Consumers of GM Food Labels in a Market with Asymmetric Information: Evidence from Experimental Auctions." 15 May     2001. 25 Oct 2005 .

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