How often do people stop to think about the genetic makeup of their food? Not often enough.
An upcoming state ballot measure, Proposition 37, aims to generate awareness about that topic by requiring genetically engineered food to be labeled as such. Prop. 37 is a necessary call for transparency and awareness in an industry and society that desperately needs both.
Prop. 37 is a result of the growing use of genetically modified organisms in the American food industry. GMOs are organisms whose genetic makeup is changed to produce certain desirable characteristics, such as tomatoes whose genes are tweaked so they have a longer shelf life. Today, nearly 90 percent of all domestic corn and soybean products are genetically engineered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If these practices are so commonplace, what advantage is there to labeling all GMO products? The answer: consumer knowledge. For the extent that GMOs are incorporated into our food, few people actually understand their implications and some people are entirely unaware of their existence.
Admittedly, GMOs are a viable way to ensure greater agricultural yield for an ever-growing population’s food needs, but it will be up to today’s students to handle their side effects and improve current genetic engineering methods. Regardless of whether one believes GMOs are good or bad, they are an important part of the future. Voting “yes” on Prop. 37 means catapulting this important phenomenon into public discourse.
It is not to say that people should not eat any genetically engineered foods. But GMOs are a new development and the long-term health consequences of eating GMOs have yet to be studied, so consumers should be cautious and able to make informed decisions.
Opponents of Prop. 37 argue that the measure would increase food prices. But prices would only significantly increase if companies decided to substitute GMOs for more expensive food items, such as organic products. But this isn’t likely to happen. Most companies can rely on the fact that many people see no need to change the food products they have been eating for years, so neither does the company that sells them.
A second critique — that Prop. 37 would create undue alarm — is unfounded. Any alarm the label generates is not unwarranted: People should be informed of the extent to which their food is genetically manipulated. But generating discomfort could encourage the greater study of GMOs, which can only be beneficial for the public.
Regardless, the extent to which people read and trust labels is debatable. All alcohol bottles and cigarette packs carry a warning from the surgeon general, but few people see this as a reason not to purchase such items. Like an alcohol label, noting that a product is genetically engineered simply informs the consumer of a relevant fact that they are fully capable of ignoring.
GMO labels are already required in more than 40 countries. Shouldn’t America, a country that prides itself on freedom of choice, provide consumers with the same right to knowledge found in other parts of the world?
Annie Wanless is an undeclared freshman.