The House Just Passed a Bill Banning GMO Labeling

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Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A major flashpoint in the ongoing public controversy over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is the question of whether foods with GMO ingredients should be labeled. Proponents of labeling, who have helped get labeling laws in place in a number of states, argue that consumers have the right to know exactly what’s in their food. Opponents argue that since there’s no scientific evidence GMOs are harmful to human health, such labeling is potentially misleading. Now it looks like Congress may step in and settle the matter: The House just passed a bill that would prevent states from enacting laws instituting mandatory labeling.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the food industry played a major role in the law’s passage:

The passage of the bill represented a huge victory for the food industry… which had lobbied for the ban. The industry complained that individual state standards would lead to confusion and costly compliance. But many in the food business also said any kind of mandatory GMO labeling requirement — even a single federal standard — was unfair, because it suggested that GMOs are not as safe or healthy as conventional food.

Supporters of labeling decried the bill’s passage as a blow to consumer choice and a usurpation of states’ rights.

The food industry surely does some skeezy things, and like any other corporate lobbying group, it pushes certain bills not out of the good of its heart, but as a means of promoting profits. And from an optics perspective, it certainly doesn’t look good whenever a newly passed bill seems to serve the interest of a given industry.

But none of that changes a simple fact: There are solid reasons, as Melissa Dahl wrote recently, to be against GMO labeling, because there’s no evidence GMO foods are harmful to human health. Moreover, as William Saletan wrote in a comprehensive article in Slate last week, the organizations lobbying against GMOs have been consistently dishonest and anti-scientific in their approach to the issue, greatly contributing to public misunderstanding and, in some cases, hysteria.

A statement from Representative Rick Nolan of Minnesota nicely sums up the pro-labeling rebuttal to all this: “The issue isn’t whether GMO foods are healthy or safe,” he said. “It’s about the right to know what’s in the food we buy for ourselves and our families. This is a serious problem begging for a solution. As yet, we haven’t seen a good one.”

That sounds good, but it will only get you so far in the face of a mounting scientific consensus. How about a state law requiring pediatricians to explain to parents the “controversy” over vaccination — not because vaccines aren’t safe, but because parents have a right to hear both sides of the debate? Or a law requiring states “teach the controversy” about evolution — not because evolution isn’t true, but because kids should hear a broader range of views? On issues where the science is settled or close to settled, more information isn’t always better.

Either way, it’s not a done deal that this bill will go through. “Support in the upper chamber is not as strong for a GMO labeling ban,” notes the Star-Tribune. “But the ban could be appended to other must-pass legislation.” Suffice it to say that, in the meantime, many Americans will continue needlessly freaking out about GMOs.