Why we’re not ready for GMO labeling — yet

Until the public can see eye-to-eye with the majority of scientists, extra labeling isn’t worth the stress

March 11, 2015
Granny Smith apples like these turn brown when damaged, but modified versions of them could appear whiter for longer. [Image credit: Flickr user Jim Roberts]

If I had to pick, I’d honestly say that my favorite food is a crisp, tart Granny Smith apple. I eat them almost every day like most people drink a morning cup of coffee. I love the sound of the crunch when my teeth break the skin and the way the juice splashes my tongue.

In February, the U.S. government agreed to let Okanagan Specialty Fruits start selling their genetically modified seeds for Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples for commercial planting. The apples from these seeds, called Arctic apples, will have all the qualities we love about them, but will block an enzyme that normally turns apples brown when they’re sliced or bruised. It’s a small change, but one that is aimed to reduce the amount of food waste Americans generate. Right now, we throw away about 40 percent of perfectly good food.

We probably won’t see these apples in grocery stores for a few years — they’re still undergoing voluntary safety tests with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — but already there’s concern about how the apples will be labeled. According to the New York Times, Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, plans to label them as Arctic or maybe non-browning, but not genetically modified because he doesn’t want to advertise the fruit in a negative light.

Carter is right to be concerned: At the moment, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a lot of bad press. According to a January 2015 poll by the Pew Research Foundation, only 37 percent of American adults believe GMOs are safe for consumption. That’s a 51 percent difference from the 88 percent of prominent scientists who stand behind them. Interestingly, according to The Washington Post, people who disapprove of GM foods are all over the political spectrum. Other scientific issues such as climate change tend to be polarized between Democrats and Republicans, but not this one — everybody seems to distrust GMOs.

As a journalist, it’s hard for me to argue that anyone should be denied information, especially about when it’s about what they’re putting into their bodies. Even so, until the general public and expert opinions come into closer concordance, I’ve reluctantly concluded that we’re not ready to label all of our GMOs. I worry that at present it would cause paranoia about food safety based on a misunderstanding of the risk. Perhaps as scientists continue to study GMOs and more factual information gets out to the public, we could get to a place where GMO labeling is safely understood. But we’re not there yet, and if climate change denial has taught us anything, we might never get there.

Technically, we’ve been eating GMOs for thousands of years, ever since farmers started selectively breeding crops to have certain traits. Now, though, modifying our crops has become more advanced: Scientists can alter genes with more precision in a lab. Since the 1990s we’ve been eating genetically modified crops like soy, canola and corn in more than half of our processed foods.

In the controlled conditions of a genetics lab, unlike the in-the-field experiments of plant breeders, scientists can precisely manipulate genes that code for certain traits. They can either use a plant, animal or bacterium’s original set of genes, or they can take genes from a different organism and insert them where they are needed. Some crops are modified to be pest resistant or herbicide resistant, while others are altered to handle new kinds of climates. Some are fortified with extra vitamins. No matter what the outcome, the FDA mandates that GMO foods need the same safety standards as conventionally bred crops. FDA scientists with backgrounds in nutrition, toxicology, chemistry and genetic engineering work with GMO producers to answer questions about the nutritional values in the new crops, as well as any new material that may be in the food. Food cannot go to market until these scientists are satisfied they are safe.

Could there be risks with GMOs? Yes. There’s always a chance that someone will have a food allergy to modified crops, or there could be some consequence that scientists haven’t foreseen. The European Union’s strict labeling policy on GMOs is based on this concern about unknown risks, often called the precautionary principle.

But the foods we already eat every day have possible risks. Undercooked chicken could contain salmonella, yet we Americans eat 8 billion chickens a year — about 25 chickens per person.

There are risks to all kinds of behavior. Every time you get in your car to go to work, there’s a 1 in 6,700 chance you’ll get into a fatal accident, and that’s just the known risk. There’s no way of predicting all the possible harm you could encounter in your day. Buying food that’s been deemed safe by the FDA is just the same: Testing, and a large number of experts, agree that it’s mostly safe, but there could always be risks.

Consumers can already buy products with organic levels if they want to be assured they are at least 95 percent GMO-free and grown without synthetic pesticides or herbicides. Organic foods are typically more expensive than their inorganic or modified counterparts, but if some people want to spend a little more for their own peace of mind, that’s their choice.

Personally, I don’t have the extra money to spend on all-organic food. But I don’t mind, because if the large majority of scientists feel GMOs are safe, I’m willing to bet on them, too. If we begin labeling GMOs, the fear those letters already ignite in most Americans may lead to panic about technology and risk that is simply not well understood. Until most Americans are better educated about the realities of GMOs, labeling them would just cause unnecessary stress, not clarity.

About the Author

Katherine Ellen Foley

Katherine Ellen Foley is a science writer and editor currently enrolled in New York University’s Science Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Before moving to the Big Apple, she graduated magna cum laude from from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service with a B.S. in Science, Technology and International Affairs. During her time at Georgetown, she wrote pieces on science policy and explainers for Policy Mic and The Hoya. Now, she writes about a variety of topics, with an emphasis on life science and the environment. In her spare time, she enjoys long distance running, spicy Korean BBQ, and swing dancing. @katherineefoley



Jon Mcneill says:

Ninety percent of GMO crops are designed to be Roundup ready. What that means is farmers can spray Roundup weed killer DIRECTLY onto crops that will be turned into the food that you and your family eat. That’s right. These crops that are turned into food that finds its way to your dinner table, have been genetically modified so that they can be sprayed directly with Roundup poison and survive. The poison is absorbed internally into every cell of the plant. It is then harvested, processed into food, and you eat it. So in other words, you are eating the poisoned plants that have been designed to survive being poisoned. Think about that. Does this sound like a good idea to you?

Roundup is made up of glyphosate and surfactants. One of the surfactants used Roundup are chemical compounds called siloxanes. Siloxanes are used in pharmaceutical drugs to penetrate the cell wall and get the drug into the cell more effectively. Glyphosate and siloxanes combine in Roundup to create a new molecule that is a hydrophobic substance. This new molecule is much more toxic to bacterial cells than Glyphosate alone and easily penetrates the bacterial cell wall.

Prior to 2005, the formulation for agricultural grade Roundup produced was roughly 300 times more toxic than Glyphosate alone. In 2005 the surfactants were modified to include more powerful siloxanes, which created an even more toxic formulation than the previous permutation. After 2005 Roundup Weathermax Two is roughly one thousand times more toxic than Glyphosate alone. In addition to the newly added siloxanes, oxalic acid was added as an adjuvant to make roundup work faster. Oxalic Acid speeds the glyphosate into plant and allows it to penetrated very quickly, delivering the glyphosate deep into the tissue of the plant.

This chemical concoction is designed to kill microbial inner structure of plants. It’s designed to kill microbes. And guess what? More than 90% of the cells in your body are not your own and THEY ARE MICROBES. They are friendly microbes that you are dependent on in order to stay alive. Without them, you die. These microbes that you depend on for your very life are the exact microbes that Roundup Weathermax Two was designed in a lab to kill. When you eat GMO food laced with trace amounts of this poison, it attacks those microbes. Roundup residue on the food you eat is literally killing the microbes within your body that you are dependent on for survival.

What we as a society have the good fortune of having this toxic concoction of chemicals that is much more toxic than glyphosate alone being sprayed directly on to crops that we convert into food that we eat. There have been precisely zero studies done as to the toxicity of the entire Roundup formulation on mammals. ZERO. Tests have only been carried out on the primary ingredient glyphosate alone. And in addition to that, there have been precisely ZERO studies of the toxicity of this concoction to mammals when chronically exposed at low levels as most people in the United States are. If you live in the United States and consume GMO food on a daily basis, which most people do, you are ingesting trace amounts of Roundup Weathermax Two every single day.

If you eat foods that contain wheat, corn, soy, canola, or sugar and they are not organic you are eating the toxic herbicide Roundup Weathermax Two. This is a fact.

There has never been one single safety study carried about by anyone to determine if ingesting trace amounts of Roundup Weathermax Two every day for years is harmful to your health. These tests have never been done. NEVER. If you are eating GMO food, then you are the experiment. You are the lab rat who may get sick, may develop cancer, or may die from chronically ingesting this poison.

You are the lab rat.

Debbie Owen says:

The writer of this article seems to think that the public needs to believe GMOs are safe before they can be labeled, that just sounds so ridiculous to me. No one else should be able to decide for us what we should know or what we shouldn’t know about the food we pay for and feed to our families. It is just morally wrong. Also, comparing the risks of consuming GMOs to the risks of driving an automobile is like comparing apples to oranges. We know there are risks when driving a car, but how are people to know if they are they are taking risks by ingesting food derived from GMO crops when they aren’t even labeled? GMOs have been genetically engineered to withstand repeated applications of herbicide (roundup ready) or to produce it’s own pesticide. These poisons do not wash off and people are eating it everyday in many different food products! What about the cumulative effect? It’s no wonder our country has become so sick since GMOs were snuck into our food supply in 1996. Just label GMOs so everyone can have the freedom of an informed choice!

Brian John says:

Regarding GMOs, “…….88 percent of prominent scientists … stand behind them…” Where on earth did that absurd figure come from? How do you define “prominent scientists”? There is NO consensus on the safety of GMO crops and foods, because there have been NO long-term feeding /safety studies which demonstrate safety, and NO epidemiological studies of a human group fed with GMOs compared with a control group eating a GMO-free diet. When those studies are done and are on the record, let’s have a debate about the safety of GMOs. But until then, those who preach that GMOs are harmless are simply repeating uncritically a mantra invented by the GM industry in its own self-interest — and to their eternal shame, many scientists have gone along with this, partly on the basis of industry-funded studies carefully designed to prevent the appearance of chronic or long-term damage done by GMOs and the chemicals which go with them. GMO labelling is necessary NOW, in the public interest.

Mischa Popoff says:

A great article Katherine. I could not have put it better myself.

One thing though, where you say, “Consumers can already buy products with organic levels if they want to be assured they are at least 95 percent GMO-free and grown without synthetic pesticides or herbicides,” this is not accurate.

Yes, the USDA National Organic Program is SUPPOSED to ensure that organic products are 95% free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. But there is currently no such threshold limit on GMO content. None. And thankfully so.

napoleon says:

Scientists may say it poses no harm to the human body. What about the ecosystem and millions of gallons of glyphosate dumped into it? It can be a big problem we face 20 years from now. We meddling a more well rounded approach. Scientists also said ddt was safe.

Pam says:

The education needs to begin with you–the journalist. This article reads much like a Monsanto/FDA press release. It’s also pretty insulting to suggest Americans aren’t smart enough to determine whether they want their food altered en masse.

Jane Peters says:

We humans are definitely ready for GMO labels. But better yet we’re ready for 100% organic food. Spraying food with poison is never a good idea.

Eric says:

Jon (and others) posting here make a good point. GMO foods are not the problem. The real problem is the reason the ag-industry wants GMO foods; which is, they want to spray chemicals in the fields that kill off everything but the intended cash crop, and so they NEED GMOs to make this plan successful.

I agree, there’s nothing inherently wrong with GMO foods. But the other half of the equation is being ignored; why do they want to plant GMO foods?

Lachie says:

Wow, these comments here are only prove the whole point of the article. If anyone bothered to look into the science they would see that they are perfectly safe for human consumption and for the environment, instead of believing conspiracy bullshit that isn’t supported by even an ounce of legitimate science.

Happy says:

i think nowadays nobody is so eager to trust the food that is in stores. talking about panic, i felt it already and it is not funny. the thought of picking your food from store to store, never mind eating a diet full in fruits and veggies, but now the question is where the plants are from, are they gmo, are they even ripe enough, makes life a little more complicated.
i don’t think that the public really has a natural instinct not to trust FDA or the government, what i think is really scary is that we are getting more and more unhealthy as a nation and really nobody wants to point a finger to where all this comes from. people gain weight, we live our lives being overweight, we go to work with a back pain, our best friend according to the media should be painkillers, we have chronic back pain, kids have more and more allergies, things that we didn’t have in the past, people live longer but everyone is on meds after a certain age, cancer used to be the big c word and day by day, i don’t know if it is by repetition of the word, but honestly its not so scary anymore. I’ve got from the point of thinking of it as something “far and away” to something that i might have sometime in my future and its going to be fine because one in three people have it or something crazy like that. the idea of being healthy is overrated and is not even doable anymore. you get one person who is healthy in his/her sixties and that’s the anomaly. its not a normal world anymore. if things were getting better and we as a nation did have more energy, were in shape and expected wonderful old age, then we wouldn’t be looking so sad at the new gmos, but looking at how things turned out, makes me wonder, if we’re not wondering all the same thing,…when these things happen, who had our back? and if no one had our back, if this was truly a mistake, well all the additives and gmos is what we had, then why are we still persevering in discovering even more? why are we not looking at their effects on the long term? why are we not questioning their safety rather than continue in what we are doing, developing even more, we don’t even know how it affects us..? where will we end up? will all food end up being gmo in stores one day and we wont even have an option to buy organic? will these have been the good days in comparison to what will be?

Peter Olins says:

@Jon Mcneill — There are various ‘cut-and-paste’ versions of your comment on the Internet. Do you know where this material came from originally, or could you provide us with some credible scientific references for the claims you are making, so we can better understand your concerns? THX.

Jon says:

Here’s the problem with this stance, the title of the article:

It’s the same stance as an intelligence test for voting, and it just rubs people the wrong way. Intellects say that the general public is too ignorant to be able to decide correctly for themselves, so the solution is to take that choice away from them. While this may be true in some respects, it is a bad political move in trying to bring out a new product, by alienating and insulting your prospective customers.

I generally understand that GMOs have not been proven unsafe.(which is not the same as saying they have been proven safe) And I’m aware that I’ve been eating them for years and will probably continue to do so. But I also understand concerns of those that feel otherwise, in varying degrees of genuine concern to completely fear driven. So I don’t have a problem with labeling.

Just do it. What’s the establishment afraid of? A mass exodus from GMO to organics? Not enough supply. Price would skyrocket, and most people would shrug and say, eh, might as well just buy the stuff of the shelf that’s available that I’ve been buying for years. Many years later, with the acceptance of time, you can then remove the GMO labels. What’s so hard?

Stephen says:

Jon Mcneill hit it on the spot with the first comment. It is not the GMO itself that consumers are afraid of, it is the exposure to pesticides, in which GMOs were designed to tolerate more of. There is plenty of evidence in regards to pesticide exposure and health. Take a look at the following sources: and

It is unacceptable that those serving the public and media (this author) regard consumers and activists as uninformed or not intelligent enough to make these decisions. We have the right to know everything about the products we consume. In the mean time however, most GMO free products are labeled, and consumers for the most part can essentially “vote” with their dollars by avoiding non labeled foods, and purchasing GMO free / organic food already. If pesticides are a concern, GMO free doesn’t guarantee that, USDA Organic does limit exposure.

Candy Swift says:

Although I’m not working in this field, but at least similar. I can be pretty sure that tens of years are needed to prove whether GMO food is safe to eat or not.

Candy Swift
Creative Biolabs

KRussell says:

More power to the LOCAL farmer who does not use GMOs or harmful pesticides. Why would we EVER say it’s OK to not properly label the ingredients that are in a product that WE will spend OUR money to buy??? Especially something we and our families will be ingesting?? Large corporations and money can spell evil at the expense of the general public…Monsanto ring a bell?? It’s stock is over $100 a share…..

Fight for GMO Labeling by Opposing the DARK Act.

pamina says:

the writer is contradictory. first he says he cannot defend denying the right to information, and yet, he is doing precisely that for rather flimsy and unscientific reasons. No one has ever had to be in agreement about political ideas, religion, evolution, acupuncture, yoga, astrology, aspertame, flouride, msg, gluten, profanity, nudity, in order for the public to be informed of the presence of any of these in anything, or anywhere. As for paranoia, the public has always been made paranoid by the presence of terrorism, commies, the swine or bird flu, etc. so why is paranoia a good reason now for not labeling GMO? he sounds like a shill for the corporations.

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