Bessent: Harness market forces on genetically modified foods

The Sweet Corn Festival takes place July 13-14, The Sweet Corn Festival takes place July 13-14, 2013 at Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck and features the many uses of corn and corn foods, along with corn eating contest, pony rides and live music. (Undated) Photo Credit: David Harbes

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Alvin Bessent Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Alvin Bessent

Alvin Bessent joined the Newsday editorial board in 1993. He writes about national government policy and politics.

There have been calls to label genetically modified foods practically from the day they arrived on supermarket shelves more than two decades ago. The latest is a bill sponsored by state Sen. Ken LaValle of Port Jefferson.

It's a good idea. Consumers worried there may be health effects should be able to tell whether the food they eat has been genetically engineered.

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. The Food and Drug Administration says the products are safe and essentially no different from their unmodified cousins. And the labeling movement in this country has lost steam.

So why not try a market approach?

Consumer groups should encourage food manufacturers to label their products that don't contain genetically modified ingredients.

If the activists are right that a lot of people want to avoid genetically modified foods, then conspicuously labeled, unsullied products would be big sellers. If a GMO-free label proved good for business, it wouldn't take a law to make manufacturers slap it on their packages.

Unfortunately, there are surprisingly few products that could claim to be untouched by genetic manipulation. In 2012, 88 percent of all corn planted in the United States, 93 percent of soybeans and 94 percent of cotton was genetically modified to ward off pests or tolerate herbicides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Each is used extensively to produce food ingredients such as corn syrup, a ubiquitous sweetener; cornstarch, added to soups and sauces; and cottonseed and soybean oil, which is in mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, breads and snack foods. Animal feed is often genetically engineered. And even new varieties of fruits and vegetables such as squash and papayas are engineered to resist plant diseases.

Still, consumers who want to avoid genetically tweaked foods should harness market forces to make sure they can.

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