A food industry giant is setting the tone in a nationwide push for transparency surrounding genetically modified organisms.
In the next several months, grocery stores across the country will carry newly packaged General Mills products that visibly label genetically modified ingredients.
The Minneapolis-based company decided to expand GMO labeling to all of its products after a Vermont law, passed last week, legally enforced such requirements.
“We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply will not do that,” said General Mills spokesperson Mike Siemienas.
The move comes at a time when many shoppers are concerned about whether genetically modified foods are safe to consume, said Marc Bellemare, applied economics associate professor and director of the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy.
“There is no solid, peer-reviewed evidence that GMOs are somehow bad for people,” he said.
Genetic modification of crops allows food to grow in conditions they don’t normally thrive in, increasing yield and fighting pests, he said.
The GMO debate is complicated because it presents two fronts, a scientific one and a political one, said plant science sophomore and Project Food Security President Shantal Pai.
“We have seen no consequence to human health. So on a scientific front, [the debate] is fairly closed,” she said.
While science concludes that consuming GMOs in food is safe, laypeople are debating whether a patent can be put on genetic information, Pai said.
There are also other environmental effects that impact the farmers, said architecture senior and U Students Like Good Food President Evelina Knodel.
GMO seeds are typically owned by large corporations, she said, which limit the markets for farmers. Limited competition means small farmers have few options, she said.
Genetically modified seeds don’t always do well in the environments they’re grown in, which can affect farmers’ livelihood, Knodel said. It can devastate poor farmers — especially in India — when they are unable to pay back their loans on the seeds, she said.
When people choose to avoid genetically modified foods, it indicates a cultural and economic ability to do so, Bellemare said.
“It is a luxury of living in a country like the United States … to say, ‘I am not going to eat any of those things,’” he said. “But there are places in the world where they do not have that luxury.”
At the University of Minnesota, about one in three students don’t know if they will have food before the end of a pay period, Pai said, and can’t afford GMO-free offerings.
“People like that often don’t have the abilities to vote with their purchases,” Pai said. “They’re … forced to choose the cheapest option, and the cheapest option will have GMOs.”
Other proponents of GMO labeling argue that consumers should have access to the information, Bellemare said. Furthermore, GMO labeling improves the transparency of companies’ practices, Knodel said.
The problem with consumer information in the case of GMO labeling, he said, is that labels can mislead.
“That’s where I suspend my belief in market information,” Bellemare said. “Is it really information, or is it disinformation?”
Although General Mills is adopting GMO labeling, the company supports a nationwide solution for the food industry as a whole, Siemienas said.
“We’ve called on Congress to set the standard, and we will continue to press for action,” he said.