Genetically engineered food and consumer choice

Last month, California had the chance to be the first state in the union to require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. Dubbed the ‘Right to Know Act,’ Proposition 37 would have required producers to clearly label raw or processed foods that contained modified ingredients.

The proposition initially received widespread public support—with many seeing it as the first step to national labeling. But in the 11th hour, large food companies launched a $45 million dollar campaign asserting its adoption would hit consumers in the wallet – to the tune of $400 a year. An independent analysis done by an Emory University law professor debunked this myth, but not in time to save the proposition. It lost by a 3% margin.

This is concerning. Genetically engineered crops make up the backbone of American agriculture, with most corn, soy, canola, and cotton being reared from seeds engineered to resist herbicides or repel pests. Which makes one wonder – what’s wrong with transparency in the market place?

Labeling genetically engineered foods could promote consumer awareness of biotechnology. It could spark valuable conversations about the health and environmental safety of modified foods. And it might even motivate biotech companies to move beyond maximizing benefits to corporations, and consider things like taste and nutrient content.

As the world’s population swells, and increased demands are made on limited farm and water resources, biotechnology will undoubtedly play a larger role in global agriculture.  But in a democratic society, it should be a consumer’s right to know.


Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on December 6, 2012. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

Photo: Ann Marie Michaels

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