Avoiding GMO food might be tougher than you think

Labels are about to become mandatory, but what does that really mean?

While there’s currently no evidence that genetically modified organisms harm human health, that isn’t to say there aren’t legitimate reasons to avoid them.

Perhaps the most common is a simple preference for that which is natural and a general aversion to that which technology—especially technology developed by Big Ag—has meddled in. Others worry about long-term effects that haven’t appeared in scientific studies yet, or ecosystem-level impacts that we haven’t picked up on. A comprehensive 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found no evidence that would support those concerns, but it also noted that caution is generally a good idea.

GM experts and proponents also have legitimate concerns that adding a label identifying GMOs gives the impression that there are scientifically proven risks to worry about. Studies on perception of GM food suggests that the public has a baseline aversion, and a label may increase wariness. Labeling advocates, of course, argue that if Americans want to avoid GMOs, they have a right to do so.

But really, a lot of the research on public opinion of GM food suggests that Americans don’t so much think negatively of it as that they don’t think much about it at all. Yes, there’s a baseline aversion, but the opinion of study subjects seems to vary wildly depending on the information provided. One study following up on that 2016 report found that the entire American public shifted their opinion measurably in the positive, likely because the report was well-publicized in its findings that GMOs are, as far as we can tell, perfectly safe for the human body.

So, it’s unclear how many Americans will actually be looking to avoid GM food in the future. But even if you want to keep your pantry GMO-free, doing so could prove challenging.

“Can people avoid them? The answer is certainly yes. Especially in the last few years there have been more products on the market that are non-GMO or organic,” says Jayson Lusk, an economist at Purdue University who studies the consumer side of GMOs. “Now, those products are more expensive—no one ever said you can avoid them for free. But they can if they’re willing and able to pay, and one way they’ll pay is in the time to find the products.”

Though very few fruits and vegetables are genetically engineered, he points out that almost anything with corn or soybeans will be difficult to get without a GM component. More than 90 percent of both crops are bioengineered in the U.S., and corn and soy derivatives go into many processed foods. Much of the sugar produced derives from sugar beets, nearly all of which are genetically engineered. Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of processed foods on the market today have a GM ingredient, but many of those foods may not require a label according to the proposed rules.

Highly processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup have little to no traceable DNA in them, and so the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which regulates food labels) doesn’t require manufacturers to add a label to indicate those bioengineered foods.

And then there’s that word—”bioengineered.” The USDA only just announced how they would require manufacturers to disclose GM ingredients, though the law was enacted back in 2016, and the new rules don’t use the term “GMO” or even “GM.” Instead, they opt for “BE” or “bioengineered,” perhaps to avoid using loaded terminology. “I’m not sure how much people will know that term,” says Dominique Brossard, a communications professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in life science issues like GMOs. “I don’t think it’s going to be very easy for people to find out [which foods are genetically modified].”

“I think this was actually the intent of the 2016 law,” says Glenn Stone, an environmental anthropologist who studies the GMO debate. “[It] was passed just in time to overrule a state-level law was taking effect requiring that GMO foods have clear labels.” Vermont had previously passed legislation that would have fined companies for failing to label food containing GM ingredients, including highly processed ones like corn syrup (though it excluded cheese, which often relies on a genetically engineered enzyme called chymosin). It also specified that the labels would include the phrase “genetic engineering,” not “bioengineered.”

In contrast, the USDA regulations allow companies to choose between three options: write out the warning (as in “contains a bioengineered food ingredient”), include a BE label, or use a QR code that would link the consumer to a page disclosing all the information.

Stone, along with other labeling proponents, argue that these options will make it harder for people to actually get the information the legislation is supposed to mandate. “This rule claims to label GMO foods, but it exempts the most common GMO food ingredients like soy oil and corn syrup while allowing the use of QR codes,” he says, “knowing perfectly well that few shoppers have the time or inclination to get out their phone, scan a code, and read a website over and over while shopping.”

Unless those regulations change, though, it could be quite hard to figure out exactly which foods contain GM ingredients and which do not. Many of the top GM crops grown for human consumption—maize, soybeans, canola, sugar beet, papaya, squash, eggplant, potato, and apples—get processed first, and wouldn’t require a label. The rest, if sold whole or as part of another food, would necessitate one. A recent overview of attitudes towards GM foods, published in the journal Annual Reviews, commented that “Since soybeans and corn (the most widely planted GE crops) are common ingredients in many food products (corn starch, corn syrup, corn oil, and soybean oil), it is likely that foods in the United States listing soybeans and corn as ingredients contain some GE ingredients unless it is specifically stated that they do not.”

Avoiding GM foods entirely could mean quite a drastic shift away from any processed food at all. Corn syrup and soybean oil are in a surprising number of foods, and they won’t carry a BE label. It’ll be up to you as the consumer to navigate those grocery store aisles on your own.