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5 Things Monsanto Doesn't Want You to Know About the GMO Labeling Debate

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made history when the federal agency approved the first genetically modified (GMO) animal for human consumption: AquaBounty Technologies' GMO salmon. The controversial move has since opened floodgates about the future of food.

Whatever side of the fence you're on about this fish—which has been genetically altered to grow to market size twice as fast as wild salmon—you'll have no idea you're eating it anyway. The FDA has not required the product to carry a label.

As the controversy of GMO labeling enters mainstream dialogue, this issue is quickly becoming a heated one. Here are the big five facts you need to know about the current standings of the debate:

1. The majority of the American public wants a label.

According to a new poll of 800 registered voters commissioned by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups—including Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports—nearly 90 percent of Americans want mandatory labeling on genetically modified foods.

This is compounded by Tuesday's New York Times editorial board in reaction to the FDA's approval of GMO salmon. In a significant reversal of opinion from the newspaper's 2013 editorial board, the board advocated for a label and stated, "consumers deserve to know what they are eating."

"The FDA said there is no reason to mandate labeling because there is no material difference between engineered and natural fish on qualities like nutritional content. But the value of that information should be left to consumers to decide," the board wrote.

Still, it seems consumer concern has fallen on the FDA's deaf ears. After the approval of the fish, the Center for Food Safety announced plans to sue the FDA and submitted a citizen petition requiring GMO foods be labeled. The FDA rejected the petition and stated, "While we appreciate consumer interest in the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants, consumer interest alone does not provide a sufficient basis to require labeling disclosing whether a food has been produced with or without the use of such genetic engineering."

2. Monsanto and Big Food are trying very hard to stop state-wide labeling.

Another hurdle in GMO labeling comes from the food industry itself. GMO food is nearly ubiquitous in American diets. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—the world's largest trade association for 300 major food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and ConAgra—says that GMOs have been around for the past 20 years, and today, 70-80 percent of foods in the U.S. contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.

Even though several states such as Vermont have passed laws requiring the labeling of GMOs, the GMA has spent millions and and heavily lobbied to block state labeling mandates. Their concern, basically, is that it will be too expensive and complicated for food companies to make a special label for Vermont but not for the other 49 states.

"A deep concern is that we'll end up with a patchwork quilt of state-by-state regulations where you'll end up in a place where you can't move a can of soup from one state to the other," Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant told CBS News in a new interview.

Grant also said that the cost of the labels would be passed onto the consumer: "The consumer is going to end up paying four or five hundred dollars more a year on their grocery bills."

No other company has been more intertwined with the GMO debate than Monsanto, the genetically modified seed giant and producer of Roundup, an herbicide that's sprayed on "Roundup Ready" crops all over the world.

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Grant said that states' adoption of mandatory GMO labels results in "confusion" and "more expenses" rather than transparency. Instead, he favors federal labeling requirements that's similar to the labels you see on organic foods, CBS News reported.

3. A federal law could ban state labeling laws completely.

It’s unclear if we’ll will ever see labels for genetically altered food, period—not just for GMO salmon. The hotly contested Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act or DARK Act, currently languishes in the Senate.

The act, H.R. 1599, which passed the House of Representatives in July, bans states from issuing mandatory labeling laws for foods containing GMOs. The bill gives the FDA the authority to establish national standards and regulations for GMO food. The Department of Agriculture would be granted full discretion over the law’s implementation.

The unsaid deadline for the Senate version is sometime before July 2016, when Vermont's GMO labeling law takes effect. As EcoWatch reported exclusively in October, Big Food is already making some preparations in anticipation of Vermont's labeling law whether or not they are successful in blocking it.

Still, the New York Times editorial pointed out that "industry groups are pressing the Senate to attach similar language as a rider to an omnibus spending bill," but added that "the Senate should rebuff that tactic and allow states to adopt mandatory labeling laws if they wish."

4. What about QR codes?

Some politicians and food industry members have advocated for a QR code as a good alternative to GMO labeling. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that QR codes are a way to provide consumers with the information they’re asking for without signaling there is anything wrong with a product.

This idea however has been met with backlash from several consumer groups. “Not everyone has a smartphone or lives in an area with reliable Internet service,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. "And even for those who do, it’s inconvenient to have to scan every food you put into your grocery cart.”

A new national poll by the Mellman Group has these key findings:

  • Almost nine in 10 (88 percent) would prefer a printed GMO label on the food package rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.

  • Just 17 percent say they have ever scanned a bar code to get information and only 16 percent say they have ever scanned a QR code.

  • If bar codes were used, more than 80 percent say food companies should not be allowed to use the app to gather information about shoppers.

5. This GMO food fight isn't really about the labels.

By the year 2050, the Earth’s population will reach more than 9 billion people. With so many mouths to feed, the food industry argues that GMOs are the answer to global food security, since these plants have been spliced and diced to resist herbicides and pesticides and theoretically yield more crops.

But that's ignoring the fact that the two most widely planted crops in the U.S.—GMO corn and GMO soybeans—are constantly blanketed by chemicals. The U.S. Geological Survey found that farmers have sprayed 2.6 billion pounds of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide on U.S. agricultural land between 1992 and 2012. Not only that, Monsanto's Roundup has been linked to a whole spate of health problems and was infamously classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s France-based cancer research arm in March.

The health impacts of glyphosate is still maddeningly unsettled. Last month, the European Food Safety Authority rejected the IARC's classification of glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. Now, DW reports that nearly 100 scientists from around the world have published an open letter calling on the European Commission "to disregard the flawed EFSA finding on glyphosate," and for a "transparent, open and credible review of the scientific literature."

As for GMO animal products, while AquaBounty says that their fish safe to eat and the production of it would put less of a strain on wild and farmed salmon populations, there are a variety of other factors to consider. The FDA’s decision "disregards AquaBounty’s disastrous environmental record, which greatly raises the stakes for an environmentally damaging escape of GMO salmon," Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, wrote. "In recent years, AquaBounty facilities outside the U.S. have dealt with an accidental disease outbreak, an accident that lead to 'lost' salmon, and a $9,500 fine from Panamanian regulators who found the company in breach of that country’s environmental laws."

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