What does “natural” mean? It shows up on food labels all the time (in fact, it’s one of the most popular food labels), and many of us know that corporations would like us to associate it with holistic, sustainable, environmentally-friendly, healthy methods of food production, processing, and preparation, but what’s really behind that label? If big ag has its way, it’ll open a whole can of worms: the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association wants the FDA to allow foods that contain GMOs to be labeled as “natural.”
The lobbying for this dovetails with a complicated discussion about food labeling and consumer rights, and with growing conflict about GMOs in the food chain. Consumers want to know what’s in their food and how it’s been handled, which is one reason regulatory agencies like the FDA have a series of food labels, and regulate the contents of foods that carry these labels; the organic label, for example, must adhere to a set standard, and if foods sold under that label violate the standard, the manufacturers and producers can be liable.
But what about the “natural” label? The FDA actually swings pretty loose and free with this one. Here’s how it feels about the issue right now: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
If you want to get extremely technical, a large proportion of the food we consume on a regular basis is genetically modified. Almost all commercial crops, as well as the animals raised for food and other animal products, have been modified through selective breeding over hundreds and thousands of years. The domestication of key plant and animal species, in fact, has played a significant role in human culture. Thus, items on your table like corn (bred from a grass that initially produced tiny, useless kernels) and milk (produced by animals refined from dangerous and wild aurochs) are, in a sense, genetically modified.
However, most people thinking of GMOs are thinking specifically of foods that have been altered in a lab environment with the insertion of genetic material to serve a variety of functions, like adding nutritional value, increasing drought tolerance, or helping plants resist herbicides so industrial farmers can apply herbicide products to manage weeds. Some consumers, particularly those concerned about health and wellness, are opposed to the use of GMOs in the food chain, or at least want the opportunity to choose whether they eat them, and labeling laws have been raging in a number of US states.
Some companies proudly label as GMO-free, with varying degrees of certifications, while others, as the GMA illustrates, would very much like to be able to tell consumers that food is “natural” without revealing the presence of GMOs, something some consumers are opposed to. Their petition to the government speaks to the desire to take advantage of the clamor for natural foods, without being attentive to the clear expressed wishes of many consumers in that particular market segment, who have strongly opposed the presence of GMOs in their foods.
Should the FDA decide to seriously consider the petition, it could lead to a lengthy, and complicated, battle. Are genetically modified organisms “natural,” and who should get to decide this? Whether they are or not, don’t consumers have the right to know what’s in their food so they can make their own decisions about what they eat?