GMO labeling takes center stage in New York

After years of debate and study, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods have been even more in the spotlight recently. Last year, California’s highly-publicized GMO labeling ballot initiative attracted significant attention before it failed in a public vote. This time around, New York State is debating the issue as the legislature considers a bill (for which NRDC recently testified in support) that would require the labeling of many foods and agricultural products produced through genetic engineering.

In much of the world, government labeling laws allow citizens to know if particular products contain GMOs. In fact, more than 60 nations, including China, Russia and Syria, require labeling of genetically modified foods. But here in the United States, consumers are generally left in the dark about genetic engineering in foods.

From an environmental and consumer affairs perspective, labeling legislation makes sense simply because consumers should be able to know what is in their food and make informed decisions about what products to select and which growing practices to support.

Importantly, labeling food that has been genetically modified would let consumers send a message to chemical corporations that are perpetuating the growing and unsustainable use of toxic pesticides. In recent years, agricultural businesses have grown increasing numbers of crops that have been genetically modified to survive lethal doses of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides—amounts that would kill nearly any other kind of plant. According to the USDA, more than 93 percent of soy planted in 2012 was “herbicide tolerant” and engineered to withstand application of herbicides, and 73 percent of all corn has also been genetically modified to withstand weed-killing chemicals. This genetic modification of crops has resulted in the increased use of many of these chemicals over time as pests and “superweed” invasive species become more resistant to their application.

And the next generation of genetically-modified crops looks to be even more harmful, with the potential to unleash wide scale use of older and more toxic herbicides, such as 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange) and dicamba. Replacing millions of acres of genetically-modified corn and soy—already engineered to tolerate herbicides, pesticides and insecticides—with these new crops that are designed to withstand the application of even more toxic chemicals will truly be a disaster for public health and the environment.

NRDC is not categorically opposed to genetically engineered foods. But increased transparency in our food supply would allow consumers to make informed decisions about the food they purchase. And, more broadly, a labeling requirement can serve as an indicator of our society’s willingness to examine and address the problems inherent in our industrial food system—problems including antibiotic overuse and air and water pollution. Allowing consumers to make educated decisions about the food products they consume and the growing practices they choose to support is one step toward a more sustainable food system.