In the last decade, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been largely criticized. Canadian rock legend Neil Young has always been an outspoken activist on environmental and First Nations issues. His latest endeavour includes urging his followers to boycott Starbucks, after the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA), which is made up of 300 companies, initiated a lawsuit alongside Monsanto in Vermont to prevent the labelling of products containing GMOs. Starbucks has since denied having a hand in this lawsuit, saying that they are merely an affiliate member of the association. However this comment hasn’t prevented the boycott from making waves. Aside from the finger-pointing, the attention has brought up the controversy of GMO-food labelling, and it’s worth talking about.
Championed and pioneered by organizations such as Monsanto and DuPont, creating GMOs involve making small changes to the genetic structure of agricultural seeds. For example, increasing the amount of vitamin A in rice or preventing pesticide absorption among maize crops. These ideas are some of many in a rapidly expanding field, which is understandably why people are concerned. So far, however, none of these concerns have held water in the numerous scientific studies held over the last few decades. A meta-review of over 1,700 studies from 2002 to 2012, published in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, concluded that there have been no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.” The situation is akin to when the microwave oven was introduced and the radioactive nature of the device sparked fears over the generation of carcinogenic food. 40 years later, microwaves are commonly used in most households.
But the same doubts among the public remain over our food. As a result, legislation, such as the one in the state of Vermont, is deemed necessary for consumers who wish to make their own decisions. This is a fine concept in theory, but it ends up creating a scapegoat out of nothing. Most people see biotechnology as a way for larger corporations to make more money at our expense. Yet we are lured to consume “natural” and/or “organic” products, which take advantage of this irrational fear of the unknown. Ironically, due to the nature of cross-pollination, it is impossible and irresponsible for companies to claim that these “natural” products don’t contain traces of GMOs.
What would happen if labels appeared on the food in our supermarkets? If we consider that most of our produce contains at least some form of genetically modified ingredients, we’d find labels on a large portion of our available selection. The foods that don’t have labels will likely have a visible markup in price. In a time in which world food prices are increasing and supply is decreasing, how much more will people be willing to pay for this peace of mind?
I’m also willing to bet that people in developing countries, whose food options are often limited, are looking at us with great confusion – wondering why we can’t simply be satisfied with what we have taken for granted. Labelling laws and the influence of Neil Young and activists alike seem to want us to go back in time in terms of agricultural technology, despite the great promise it is demonstrating. Now that climate change globally threatens the very food security we take for granted, food labeling is just another “first-world problem” that defines us. And we shouldn’t be particularly proud of this one.