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Are genetically modified foods labelled?

It is a fundamental right that people should know what they are eating. However, there are some aspects of the labeling of ag-biotech generated foods that must be considered.

An important aspect of the labeling issue is the cost. Even when scientific evaluation suggests that there is no need to label GM (genetically modified) products, I believe in the right of the consumer to know their origin if this is deemed desirable. However, consumers need to realize that compulsory labeling will likely increase the cost of food substantially because of the need to keep GM and non-GM foods separate from the farmgate to the supermarket and to label some and not others. Whether consumers will be willing to pay this extra cost, even when there is no real need for it, has not been determined.

Some technologies aim to make an important change to the composition of the food. For example, we eat the storage organs of plants such as the seeds and tubers. These contain specialized storage proteins that have a restricted range of amino acids and cannot give us all the amino acids we require in our diet. For many years, first through breeding and now by biotechnology, attempts have been made to induce plants to produce products with a full range of amino acids in their proteins. This is why a Brazil nut protein was added to soybeans. The Brazil nut protein contained the amino acids the soybean lacked. Foods such as this must clearly be tested and labeled to avoid any allergic problems, as was the case for the Brazil nut protein.

Oil made from transgenic canola plants that are herbicide resistant contains no residue of the transgene or its products. The oil is identical with the oil from non-transgenic plants. Labelling would indicate a difference that is not the case. It might be suggested that people should have a chance to protest biotechnology by avoiding such foods. But do we need to cater to all special interest groups and where does this stop especially with prepared food that may contain components from multiple sources?

The level of the product of the transgene may be very small and have no effect on the properties of the food that contains it. An example of this would be herbicide resistance in plants where the level of the product of the bacterial gene is very small. Should these products be labeled even though they are almost identical to the non-transgenic plants? If there is any concern at all, they should be labelled to at least make consumers feel comfortable.

The simplest and cheapest way to deal with customer concerns is to label products that are free of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) so that people who object to the technology or are concerned about its effect on the food they eat can avoid them. However, consumers choosing these products should be aware that they will have to pay a premium for them.

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