Editor's note: This piece was contributed by Mahni Ghorashi, co-founder of Clear Labs. He leads commercial activities at the company, including strategy and corporate development. After graduating from MIT and getting his MBA, Ghorashi was head of marketing at Bina Technologies. He is also a concert pianist and a tireless supporter of the arts.
Last month, Obama signed into law the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. Cue division among the food industry, non-GMO advocates and consumers, amid mixed reactions of concern, questions, and conciliation.
The law, which essentially nullified more aggressive regulations in Vermont, focuses on creating a national standard for labeling GMOs.
It is an important step in a much needed movement towards the transparency consumers have been asking for. It is the future of food – a future the industry is thankfully beginning to embrace; a future where we can understand and trust where our food comes from more than ever before. This is an exciting time.
However, many of the concerns from the food industry are valid. If we don’t understand the ins and outs of what the law regulates and requires, we cannot assure that implementation and compliance will actually happen in an impactful way.
A key concern from the pro-labeling camp and industry as a whole is that the bill has no teeth – too many loopholes, messy compliance and confusion on what the labels will actually tell us. Part of this is an inevitable result of compromise. As Richard Wilkins, a Delaware farmer who is president of the American Soybean Association said, "I don't think that it's the best bill that we could have, but it's the best bill we could pass.”
Another part of this concern is the state of food testing technology today and the lack of consumer education about what non-GMO labeling actually means. There is an undeniable gap between consumer expectation and the reality of compliance on the part of industry. We undermine the cause if we ignore that reality.
The challenges of compliance
Right now, people are hyper-focused on the physical manifestation of the label, but the form of the label isn’t the problem. We don’t even know what data the labels need to include. The label is the manifestation. We need to worry less about what it looks like and focus on the approach that defines what goes on the label in the first place.
There is unfortunately a lack of basic market education on what an informative label would contain, but here are a few additional reasons why it’s harder for the food industry to comply than you might think, even if they want to (which, by the way, many brands do).
The definition of a GMO is still under debate. As it turns out, most of the food in grocery stores have had their genes altered in one way or another. Be it transgenic, intraspecies, or conventional breeding, the muddied waters of GMOs are no closer to being clear.
In the law, GMOs are defined as entities containing “genetic material that has been modified through in-vitro, recombinant DNA techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”
While appearing specific, this definition is actually pretty broad and it leaves more questions for compliance than it answers. Determining what “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature” is hard, especially when you consider we’ve been breeding plants to have specific characteristics and traits for centuries.
Determining labeling standards and ensuring that labels have accurate and useful context is a challenge.
Consider this study in which researchers found that “though many in the United States support mandatory GMO labeling (similar to current European standards), consumer awareness of current GMO labeling is low.” And this study, in which researchers found that “of those sampled, 84% supported a mandatory label for food containing genetically modified ingredients. However, 80% also supported a mandatory label for food containing DNA, which would result in labeling almost all food.”
The question of what consumers want—or need—to be in a GMO label is entirely unclear.
Technology needs to catch up
We’re forging ahead on the regulation front, but today’s GMO testing technology is sorely behind the curve.
Today’s testing, using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is very narrow—only testing for one pre-identified gene at a time. This makes it financially limiting if you have to test at any sort of scale.
PCR is useful if you know what you’re looking for. But with the regular introduction of new GMOs to the market, that’s getting harder and harder to do. With the unclear definition and understanding of GMOs, parameters will inevitably narrow.
There are two main problems with testing today.
First, if we did want to label individual genes, there’s no good way of doing so at scale or outside of the most common types of GMO genes. Just as labeling foods as GMO or non-GMO became a differentiator for forward-thinking brands, the labeling of individual genes is an opportunity for brand differentiation and further consumer education.
As more advanced GMO techniques hit the market, it’s reasonable to expect that the specific labeling of genes is the next natural progression to the GMO movement.
Consider the Roundup Ready Crops, which have been genetically engineered to be more resistant to a main active ingredient in Roundup. Knowing that a crop has been genetically modified with the CP4 ESPS gene may indicate that the product has been exposed to more herbicides, whereas another GMO gene may be less concerning to consumers.
This is a forward-thinking example, considering the market is still unclear on the definition of a GMO. It represents the kind of labeling specificity and standard that would help not only give clarity to the industry and to consumers today, but help determine the kind of food testing technology we will need tomorrow.
Secondly, PCR is not unbiased, meaning that you have to know what you’re looking for going into the test. Therefore, less common GMO genes can go undetected.
That’s problematic because with this transparency movement, GMO and non-GMO are going to be juxtaposed in a visceral way. It will be either one or the other and there will be no middle ground. As a result, we have to expect that even more consumers will seek out non-GMO products when the choice is made so black and white. We have to make sure those labels are accurate, and the reality is that today it’s impossible to scientifically verify GMO-free labels. Even the Non-GMO Project, the most trusted third-party verification body, admits that it’s impossible to guarantee “GMO free” on any label.
Public perception of GMOs and subsequent education is important. We can’t forget to give technology a seat at the table to help determine what’s possible both in terms of labeling standards and subsequent compliance by brands.
I am very hopeful this legislation represents a new era of transparency for the food industry, but we can’t ignore the fact that the food industry is now expected to comply with a standard that is at odds with scientific fact, perception and today’s food testing technology.
We need to carefully consider what we’re demanding. If we’re unclear as to what data goes behind the label, what that data means, and whether or not the food industry is set up for compliance success with regards to the current capabilities of food testing technology, then we risk misleading consumers and placing undue demands on the industry.
How hard or how easy it is will be a direct result of the technological tools we put in place to help brands meet consumer demand, and to make mandatory labeling not only a reality, but create a sustainable future of transparency in food.