Genetically modified organisms in agriculture have been a source of controversy since their introduction in the mid-1990s.
On the one hand, the planting of GM varieties has spread rapidly. In the case of soybeans, more than 70 percent of total acreage used for their cultivation is of some type of GM variety. However, GM varieties have not been adopted in major crops like wheat, rice and potatoes, and are banned in the European Union and most African countries. There has been continuous debate over the regulation of GM varieties, and California voters now face a proposition that will require the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients.
On the surface, the main argument behind the proposition is the right of individuals to know the true makeup of the food they eat. I agree with this in principle, but in the case of this particular proposition, the crux of this issue has little to do with freedom of choice. In fact, voluntary labeling of GMO-free products can meet the informational needs of people who want to avoid GMOs. Anyone who is strongly opposed to buying GM products is free to do so, as U.S. Department of Agriculture “certified organic” products do not contain GMOs.
The real issue of the proposition is the benchmark required for mandatory labeling. Right now, the benchmark is proven toxicity or meaningful health effects; thus, the government has rightly required the labeling of cigarettes and caloric contents. GM products are not required to be labeled because regulatory research has found them to be as safe as conventional foods.
From an economic perspective, labeling GMOs makes sense if the net benefit from having it outweighs the cost. While some people may feel strongly against GMOs and may vote for the proposition because their perceived benefits from labeling are very high, I suspect that there are many others who are indifferent or only slightly concerned about GM varieties, yet may be unaware of the environmental and social benefits of GMOs and the potential negative consequences of labeling.
Most of the food we eat today has been bred for humans and modified through a variety of techniques. They include traditional selective breeding, as well as induced mutations through radiation or other chemicals. The discovery of DNA and advances in modern molecular biology have allowed the development of more refined and precise crop breeding techniques.