A handful of genetically-modified soybeans. Many places in Europe have… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Activists rejoiced last week when a hard-fought battle over international standards for labeling genetically modified food came to an end — finally — after decades of debate.
But the agreement, which many say opens the door for labels to be placed on such foods, will probably have little effect on food labels in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
And that could be a good thing, some scientists said.
"The public gets bogged down on whether [crops are] genetically engineered or not. We think that's a distraction," said Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis. "The consumer needs to know: Is it safe to eat?"
Delegates to the so-called Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body created in 1963 by the United Nations to set voluntary standards for food safety and handling, have been arguing over labels for genetically engineered food for the better part of 20 years.
Concerned that the biotech food is not adequately tested and could be unsafe for people or the environment, some countries, particularly ones in Europe, have pushed for mandatory labeling. Others, including the U.S., have argued that such labels are misleading because the genetically modified products that are on the market have been thoroughly tested and deemed safe.
Requiring that genetically engineered foods be labeled as such would be unfair, said Nathan Field, director of biotechnology and economic analysis at the National Corn Growers Assn. in St. Louis, echoing the feelings of many in the food production industry.
"There is no nutritional content difference between the products," he said. Genetic engineering "doesn't affect the environment or food or feed quality in any way. If there's no evidence they're different, there shouldn't be a label."
But some consumer advocates argue that chronic effects of eating genetically engineered foods could go undetected by what they see as lax oversight.
"Consumers have a legitimate right to be skeptical, given the imperfections of our safety system," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday in Geneva, Codex delegates agreed on guidance that had been cobbled together to give each side of the debate a little bit of what they wanted.
The document declared on the one hand that "different approaches regarding labeling of foods derived from modern biotechnology are used" around the world. And, in what was probably a concession to the U.S., it also declared that it "is not intended to suggest or imply that foods derived from modern biotechnology are necessarily different from other foods." The document then pointed to 10 existing Codex standards that countries should comply with in food labeling.
Though this might seem like a very modest achievement after 20 years of consideration, it broke up a logjam and — simply by laying out some ground rules — legitimized the practice of labeling genetically modified foods.
"This is a major victory and milestone for consumer rights," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for the Consumers Union, a consumer advocacy organization in Yonkers, N.Y.
Still, the agreement fell short of what many activists, including Halloran, wanted because it didn't call for mandatory labeling. Countries are free to do what they want.
In some Latin American and African countries — "battlegrounds" where consumer groups are fighting for labeling laws, Halloran said — that might very well mean new labeling policies. But the Codex decision is highly unlikely to affect practices in places like the U.S. and Canada, where many genetically engineered crops are grown and products are consumed. In the U.S., more than 70% of processed foods contain genetically engineered or biotech ingredients.
Labeling here is voluntary; what labeling exists is mostly used to declare that a food has no genetically modified ingredients. Products labeled organic, for instance, fall into this category.
The official acknowledgement that genetically modified foods can be labeled does at least mean that countries that label such foods shouldn't have to worry about sparking trade disputes, Halloran said. "It seems to us a major step forward."
In Europe, where modified foods are labeled, the European Union Parliament is taking steps to go much further: It voted last week on draft legislation to give countries greater authority to ban such crops altogether.
While critics of genetically modified foods said they believed oversight in the U.S. is too lax, many scientists say that ample studies have demonstrated the items are safe.
"People have been eating products from genetically modified crops for almost 15 years," said UCLA molecular biologist Bob Goldberg, who helped develop a genetically engineered canola plant that is widely planted in Canada and produces more oil than conventional canola. "They've been more tested than any food product you can imagine, without even a sneeze."