'Frankenfood' Gets Labels... Sort Of

A UN conference agrees that genetically modified foods must be tagged when shipped. Supermarket labels will have to wait.

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For the representatives from 138 nations trying to come to an agreement on how to deal with the explosive issue of genetically modified foods, the words "breakthrough" and "important first step" have been as rare as 100 percent organic popcorn around the Monsanto break room. But there was Juan Mayr of Colombia, president of the United Nations conference on biosafety, breaking into tears as he announced early Saturday that after several years of contentious negotiations, an agreement had been reached. The protocol would allow countries to reject genetically modified foods without scientific evidence of harm, and it would require exporters to label shipments that may contain added genetic material, but it would not force them to separate normal and altered agricultural products.

That last point was almost the deal-breaker. The European Union had insisted on requiring genetically modified foods or seeds to be shipped in separate containers. Representatives from the U.S. and Canada balked, swearing that it would cost billions to set up separate distribution systems. Although U.S. farmers lose millions in exports annually because of E.U. consumer fears about their crops, the U.S. negotiating team was prepared to walk out rather than cede the point. In the end, negotiators agreed to settle for labels that note the shipment may contain some genetically modified material. That particular label may become a common sight on European loading docks; nearly 50 percent of soybeans (and 35 percent of the corn) grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, and that number is bound to rise, especially if this agreement helps to allay consumer fears about modified crops.

Whether that happens is still very much in question. While representatives from all sides seemed happy with the results, the deal is essentially a back-end protocol: Bulk food products will be labeled for shipping, but the foods that show up on grocery shelves won't be required to have anything identifying them as containing GM materials. That's a battle for another round of talks.