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By: Alan Rownan

Should US states be allowed label and regulate GMO food? That’s the billion dollar question. The on-going debate is a divisive one, undermined by political point-scoring and unsubstantiated opinion lacking scientifically based foundations. The quips of Presidential hopefuls and other public figures coupled with the resounding chorus of critique emanating from the American people does little in the way of informing citizens what the implementation of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 or the ‘DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) act’ as critics are calling it will actually mean.

Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have already implemented mandatory GMO labelling laws on the back of overwhelming public support, but these will effectively be pre-empted should the Dark Act prove successful in the Senate after gliding quite easily through the House of Representatives earlier in the year.

Summing up the GMO argument – separating the wheat from the chaff

In contrast to the bill’s success in the House of Representatives, polls by the New York Times, Washington Post and other consumer research groups have recently shown the American people voting overwhelmingly in favour of mandatory GMO labels on food. In fact, over 90% of respondents to the polls voted in favour of the labelling. Their concerns largely fall into three categories;

  1. Human health – Despite GMOs being ruled safe by the FDA, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organisation, consumers still remain cautious of GMO foods. One of main anti-GMO positions is focused on the toxicity of the herbicide ingredient Glyphosate and whether or not it has carcinogenic properties that could affect human health. While still under debate in the USA, in Europe EFSA has recently ruled that there is no causal link between Glyphosate exposure and cancer, which goes a long way in further proving the safety of GMO consumption.
  2. Animal health and welfare – This is a more prevalent concern as GMO crops are widely used in animal feed in the US. Prior to 1996 GMO animal feed was non-existent, and while prevalent now, there has been no visible causal effect between GMO feed and animal health. Despite some high profile studies such as Judy Carman’s toxicology study on pigs that were subject to a GM soy and maize diet suggesting a link between GMO and health defects the evidence isn’t concrete, with the bulk of the literature considering GMO animal feed safe for consumption.
  3. Environmental – These concerns are about water and air quality and the effects of GMO’s on complex eco systems. The long term environmental effects of GMO production aren’t as easy to quantify and have been a further source of concern in the anti-GMO camp.

Accommodating the anti-GMO consumer

To sidestep the bio-tech/anti-GMO mudslinging, voluntary frameworks such as the consensus based Non-GMO Project have entered the fray, offering North America’s only independent verification of Non-GMO products. The Non-GMO Project currently certifies over 34,000 products cross 2,500 brands implementing rigorous standards for accredited brands and continuing to be a valuable alternative for consumers looking for non-GMO foods.

As the debate generates an air of unease, some companies are keen to position themselves in such a way that negative impacts of the DARK act will be largely mitigated i.e. by self-certifying their offerings as GMO-free. Hain Celestial realise that staying ahead of the game is essential to counteracting any possible negative implications if the bill passes and will remain in a position to offer consumers GMO free labelled produce, with the likes of their Imagine brand UHT soup and accounting for 10% of total UHT soup in the USA in 2015 already displaying the sought after label.

Whitewave Foods Co., Silk Soy Milk, also offers a GMO free label for customers. Already dominating the market with a 48% market share of US Soy Milk in 2015, adopting a voluntary GMO label reinforces their authority regardless of the outcome of the DARK act.

Without a doubt voluntary GMO-free labelling already offers added value to products, but the true success may be the long term strategy that, regardless of regulation, these brands are likely to be able to maintain or even improve their position in the market even if worst comes to worst.

Playing the waiting game

What is more difficult to tackle is the overwhelming public majority that asks the question why can’t we have GMO labelling? Perhaps the bulk of evidence suggests that GMO labelling isn’t essential, but US citizens are making a stand and refusing to allow the bio-tech sector to dictate public policy.

If the success of Non-GMO verified label is a further validation of the national polls showing the support for GMO labelling the battle between big business and the people is set for a showdown in the Senate and the DARK act won’t remain in the shadows for much longer.

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