On Thursday, lawmakers and food companies called on the White House to mandate special labels on products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fueling the debate over the polarizing farming practice that scientists say will end world hunger and critics decry as harmful to the body as well as the environment.

Backed by over 200 food companies, organic farming groups, and health organizations, four Democratic members of Congress delivered to the White House an open letter urging President Barack Obama to make good on a seven-year-old campaign promise to require more transparency and labelling in the GMO food industry. “In 2007, during a campaign stop in Iowa, President Obama pledged to give Americans the right to know whether they are eating genetically engineered food,” said Food Democracy Now's Dave Murphy at a press conference held on Thursday. “It’s time for the President to fulfill his commitment.”

The signatories, who included industry behemoths like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Stonyfield Farm as well as lawmakers Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., further stated that the proposed labelling mandate shouldn’t be construed as an attempt to mark products with “skull and crossbones,” but rather a way to return control to consumers — consumers who, in the words of Rep. DeFazio, are “more confused than ever.”

Aside from reminding the Administration of a promise they themselves made, the group also cited polling figures suggesting that virtually all Americans back the labeling of GMO products. “National polls show that 93 percent of Americans support GMO labeling,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, at the press conference. “Consumers increasingly want to know how their food is produced. The organic sector, which by law cannot use GMO processes, as well as many other non-allowed processes and inputs, always sides with the transparency that consumers deserve.”

While the fact that an industry sector barred from using a particular cost-cutting practice would want to limit its profitability in competing sectors shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, Batcha’s comment nonetheless illuminates a more or less indisputable truth about consumers: Nearly everyone wants GMO labels on their food products.

Incidentally, the delivery of the letter also goes to the core of the entire debate. By citing overwhelming public and industrial support, the group is claiming that the everyday consumer should have the final say. Supporters of GMOs, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Board of Directors as well as the editorial board of Scientific American, claim that this would further distort the image of a deeply misunderstood practice.

Thinking About Genetic Engineering

What is genetic engineering? In the U.S. food industry, genetic engineering is a way to limit an organism’s vulnerability to forces of nature like blight and pests. It also protects against pesticides and other poisons synthesized by humans. To protect a certain crop, a researcher starts by identifying a protective gene in some other organism. The researcher isolates this particular gene and splices it into a plasmid obtained from a bacterial medium, which is then allowed to infect the crop that is to be protected. As a result, some of the plant cells will begin to incorporate the desired trait, allowing the researchers to isolate and extract an improved genetic blueprint…

…Right. Let’s start somewhere else.

Life is diverse. Evolution has allowed different expressions of life to branch out into countless species and variations. Post-Enlightenment thinkers like Darwin gave us a framework through which this process can be imagined and discussed. However, its fundamental principle has guided farmers for millennia.  

Since the dawn of agriculture, the entire enterprise has been predicated upon the absolutely mind-blowing observation that two strong organisms tend to produce comparably strong offspring. As the editors of Scientific American point out, famers have always used this knowledge to boost crop yields and cattle sizes by systematically favoring specimen with desirable traits. Genetic engineering, scientists argue, is not different.

“Civilization rests on people’s ability to modify plants to make them more suitable as food, feed, and fiber plants, and all of these modifications are genetic,” the AAAS Board wrote in the conclusion of its official statement regarding GMOs. “Modern molecular genetics and the invention of large-scale DNA sequencing methods have fueled rapid advances in our knowledge of how genes work and what they do, permitting the development of new methods that allow the very precise addition of useful traits to crops, such as the ability to resist an insect pest or a viral disease, much as immunizations protect people from disease.”

Towards a Sensible Approach to GMOs and Health

Save for a few heavily criticized papers, the vast majority of research suggests that GMOs pose no more health risks than the organisms from which they are derived. This is not disputed in the letter; the industry groups are calling on the President to end the confusion that currently pervades the grocery aisles. But if we are to trust scientific authorities, this confusion must be weighed against the real benefits that GMOs can offer parts of the world where consumer choice and supplier relations do not exist at all.

Even though vitamin-enriched products like Golden Rice could virtually transform the health profile of many developing countries, they are encountering resistance on virtually all levels, partly due to the unwarranted “Frankenstein” rhetoric that surrounds their production. Scientists fear that a mandatory GMO label will only serve to perpetuate this stigma. They fear that, by implementing the proposed policy change, the White House will doom GMO research in a nation that is home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world.  

Your move, Washington.