Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation The Transparency Policy Project


Labeling Genetically Modified Foods to
Protect Health and the Environment

Controversies concerning the safety and environmental effects of genetically modified food crops created extraordinary political conflict and market disruptions in the United States, Europe, and developing countries during the 1990s and early 2000s. Early genetic modification of crops, introduced commercially in the mid-1990s, created corn, soy, and other grains, fruits, and vegetables that were resistant to pests or pesticides or enhanced to produce extra vitamins, proteins, or other nutrients. Genetic modification differed from conventional crossbreeding by altering plants at the molecular level, sometimes by combining the DNA of different species. In the pipeline were bioengineered plants that promised drought resistance orimmunity to or treatments for specific diseases. However, new benefits were accompanied by questions concerning the possible introduction of allergens when DNA from different species was combined; the long-term environmental effects of pest-resistant crops on beneficial insects, birds, and animals; and the possible creation of “superweeds” or other pesticide-resistant plants or insects from inadvertent crossbreeding between conventional and bioengineered plants.

The EU and the United States took different approaches to the introduction of genetically modified food crops in the mid-1990s. The EUregulated geneticallymodified crops as a novel health and environmental issue, requiring thorough review and risk assessment for each field trial and product introduction. The United States regulated genetically modified crops as a variation on familiar health and safety concerns, allowing many field trials and introductions to take place without government permits.

After an informal six-year ban on imports of genetically modified crops, Europe adopted a mandatory labeling regime in 2004. After welcoming genetically modified crops, theUnited States adopted guidelines for voluntary labeling. As of 2005, however, labeling had not improved the efficiency of international markets or public safety, and both its effectiveness and itssustainability were in doubt.

The European public responded to the sudden introduction of genetically modified foods by the American Monsanto Corporation in 1996 and 1997 with demonstrations and boycotts. Inflammatory headlines warned of the dangers of “frankenfoods”; Green Party representatives cautioned about environmental risks; respected consumer organizations called for product labeling or withdrawal; and Prince Charles, Paul McCartney, and other well-known figures echoed public skepticism about the safety of such foods. Already frightened by risks associated with mad cow disease (risks that initially were downplayed by public officials), an incident of dioxin-contaminated Belgian food, and the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease (none of which had anything to do with genetic modification), European consumers were distrustful of government and commercial assurances of food safety.

In contrast, the American public barely noticed the introduction of genetically modified foods. Antiregulatory sentiment ran high in the United States in the mid-1990s, following gains by conservatives in the midterm elections of 1994. Experts in government and the private sector debated safeguards and determined that no new regulatory system was needed for genetically modified foods. Risks could be considered product by product—just like risks associated with other advancing food technologies. Interestingly, the U.S. food industry favored a mandatory safety assessment for genetically modified foods, although the industry opposed mandatory labeling.

In 1998, European Union member states instituted an informal ban on the import of bulk shipments of products that might contain genetically modified organisms, stopped approving genetically modified foods, and required labels on packaged foods already on the market that contained genetically modified corn or soy. In the United States, farmers rapidly increased production of genetically modified crops so that nearly 40 percent of corn acreage and more than 70 percent of soybean acreage was planted with crops engineered to increase resistance to pests or herbicides. Planting such genetically modified seeds had benefits for farmers. It could reduce significantly costs associated with plowing and purchase of pesticides.

In the late 1990s, however, European protests spread to the United States and other countries. In 1999, protests by a variety of activist organizations led national farm associations in the United States to warn their members about the economic risks of planting genetically modified crops. Companies such as Frito-Lay and Nestle banned such crops from their products in the United States as well as in Europe. Gerber and H. J. Heinz removed genetically modified ingredients from baby food. Domestic incidents also triggered alarm. When Starlink, a variety of genetically modified corn approved only for animal feed in the United States, was found in taco shells in fast-food restaurants in 2002, it raised the specter of possible allergens. After ten years of commercialization,virtually all the production of genetically modified crops remained concentrated in only four countries—the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil.

International disagreement took the highest toll in Africa. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi rejected U.S. food aid in 2002 because shipments contained genetically modified corn, even though those countries were threatened with famine conditions and genetically modified corn had been distributed without controversy in Zambia for six years. African nations could not risk losing the European market fortheir crops if the seed found its way into farmers’ fields. The United States remained the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products. But Europe, one of the world’s two largest importers (along with Japan), had more influence over market rules.

Scientific uncertainty continued to leave room for polarized debate. In the United States, the National Research Council remained supportive of the benefits of genetic engineering of crops but also emphasized the importance of assessing each product individually for potential risks from allergens, contamination of other plants, or damageto insects or animals. The Research Directorate General of the EU, as well as French and British authorities, acknowledged that no human health or environmental problems had yet been observed but also cautioned about long-term risks. All agreed that there was agreat deal that was not yet known about the effects of genetic modification of foods.

Labeling of genetically modified foods was not an unreasonable approach to promoting more efficient markets, improving consumer choice, and creating incentives for minimizing the risks of genetic modification—goals that Europe, the United States, and developing countries shared. In the past, governments had often employed food labeling to promote public health and inform consumer choice when individual preferences differed. Europe and the United States already specified the labeling of ingredients, allergens, and nutrients in packaged foods.

In 2004, the EU did replace its informal moratorium with an exacting system of labeling and tracking genetically modified foods and animal feed. Some allowance was made for accidental contamination on the grounds that some mixing of crops wasinevitable. Foods that contained less than 0.9 percent of genetically modified substances did not have to be labeled. In order to implement the labeling regime, the EU required that the characteristics, shipping, and sale of genetically modified food ingredients be tracked from planting to incorporation in products. Tracking was essential in order to verify labeling and facilitate recalls. Genetically modified seeds also had to be labeled and tracked. In effect, genetically modified crops had to be segregated at each step of production and distribution—from farm to fork. The European Commission approved one variety of Bt corn for human consumption (but not planting) in May 2004, the first biotech product to gain approval since 1998. The commission also approved a variety of genetically modified maize in 2006.

After the Starlink contamination incident in 2002, the United States also proposed voluntary guidelines for companies to use if they wanted to inform consumers that their products did or did not contain genetically modified ingredients. The FDA recommended that labels feature statements that products were (or were not) genetically engineered or were made (or not made) using biotechnology, rather than statements that products were “GMO free,” since some degree of contamination seemed unavoidable. In an unrelated regulatory change, the United States also introduced rules to standardize labeling of “organic” foods, a growing portion of the U.S. food market. Those rules included a requirement that foods labeled organic could not contain genetically modified ingredients.

As of 2006, however, the labeling of genetically modified foods appeared unlikely to prove sustainable or effective as a public health measure or as a means of increasing market efficiency by informing consumer choice, for two reasons. First, frequent incidents of contamination between genetically modified and conventional crops, as well as acknowledgement that some contamination was inevitable, raised doubts about whether accurate labeling was technically feasible. Second, the underlying complexity and uncertainty of safety and environmental issues concerning genetic modification made it difficult to communicate accurately with consumers by means of labels. “GMOs fall into the class of risk situations characterized by both low certainty and low consensus,” David Winickoff and his coauthors suggested in an analysis of these food wars. In such situations, labels that warn but do not inform tend to inflame public fears rather than improve public knowledge.

Labeling of genetically modified foods by the EuropeanUnion also had extreme unintended consequences. In effect, it continued to preclude farmers in developing countries from planting genetically modified crops. Seemingly simple labeling required farmers, distributors, and food companies to segregate genetically modified crops at every step. Farmers, grain elevators, railroad cars, processing facilities, and food manufacturing plants needed separate facilities and processes for conventional and genetically modified fruits, vegetables, and grains. In the United States, officials estimated that crop segregation and tracking requirements might increase food production costs by 10 to 30 percent.

In the absence of any more appropriate international forum, the continuing battle over the labeling of genetically modified foods took the formof a trade dispute, with the World Trade Organization (WTO) acting as arbiter. In February 2006 the WTO ruled that the EU’s informal ban against imports of genetically modified foods represented an unlawful restraint of trade (although the EU had by then technically lifted the ban). EU officials countered that the WTO ruling would not influence their policies.

This case study is drawn from Full Disclosure, Fung, Graham and Weil, 2007.

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