Did your breakfast this morning contain genetically modified organisms?
Do you want such foods to be specially labeled? Should you care?
GMO labeling has been making headlines for several years, but the political and legal
debate over the best way to regulate genetically engineered products is actually
decades overdue. Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed laws requiring genetically
engineered food to be labeled. Other states have had similar ballot initiatives
defeated, bills pending or previously introduced bills, including West Virginia.
On the federal level, a variety of GMO labeling bills have been introduced in Congress.
Some would require the Food and Drug Administration to mandate GMO labels under
existing federal law, while other bills would interpret that same federal law to
preempt state efforts to require GMO labeling without mandating a federal labeling
Unfortunately, because this public attention to GMOs has arrived late in these products’
history, it is also misdirected. GMO labeling is unnecessary, because concerned
consumers may already avoid GMOs by buying certified U.S. Department of Agriculture
Organic products, which cannot contain GMOs. But this labeling would also be insufficient
because it fails to plug holes that were left in the federal oversight of genetic
engineering technology in the rush to bring these products to market a generation
GMO technology first became marketable in the 1980s. At that time, the Reagan Administration
sought to ensure that U.S. companies would gain competitive advantage over foreign
competitors by streamlining federal oversight of the new technology. Congressional
committees held a few hearings examining the possible impacts of the new technology
and the potential need for new legislation. In 1986, however, the Reagan Administration
announced a policy, called the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology,
under which GMOs would be regulated by three federal agencies — the USDA, the FDA
and the Environmental Protection Agency — under separate pre-existing statutes
regulating plant pests, food additives and pesticides.
The trouble with this policy is that the laws on which it was based did not anticipate
genetic engineering technology and cannot keep up with its current advances. This
leaves gaping holes in the federal government’s ability to oversee GMO products
and to ensure that new products are safe for the environment and consumers. For
example, USDA’s authority to regulate GMO seeds is based on a law that requires
USDA to oversee plant pests, defined to include bacteria and viruses. This was
arguably adequate in the early days of genetic engineering, when scientists used
viruses as vectors to deliver genes to the target cells. The latest technology,
however, may deliver the new genes without the use of viruses, or may delete genes
rather than adding them, as seen with the new CRISPR gene editing tool. USDA’s
authority to regulate viruses does not provide any authority for USDA to regulate
these new products.
President Barack Obama has acknowledged this and other deficiencies in the existing
Coordinated Framework policy, and in 2015 appointed an interagency task force among
USDA, FDA and EPA to study the framework and recommend adjustments. This is a good
start, but it does not go far enough. Now that consumers have become aware of the
prevalence of GMOs in our environment and food supply, concerned citizens should
push for greater participation in this administrative review. You can learn more
about the task force and sign up to be kept informed of opportunities to comment
In addition, citizens should ask Congress to reconsider new legislation specific
to GMOs that will plug existing gaps and keep up with changes in technology. The
GMO labeling movement has helped to focus and channel public dissatisfaction with
the way the government has handled GMOs in the past. A thorough review and substantial
revision of the Coordinated Framework, with greater public participation and transparency,
would treat the root causes of that dissatisfaction and ensure that GMOs remain
available to the market without posing unnecessary risks to our environment and
our food supply.
is a professor in the College of Law, where she teaches and writes in the
area of sustainable development, including environmental and trade law, with
a special focus on agriculture and food law. She holds a bachelor’s degree in
journalism, a JD from Yale Law School and an LLM in agricultural law from the
University of Arkansas.