Here’s what you need to know about them.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated August 02, 2016
Credit: Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images

New food labels may soon indicate which products in your grocery store have been made with genetic engineering—but you might need your smartphone to actually read them.

Last week, President Obama signed a bill that will require most food products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such, with text, a symbol, or a smartphone-scannable electronic code.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now has two years to create federal guidelines, giving companies the choice of these three options. The bill was introduced as a way to standardize the regulation of GMOs across the country, after several states proposed or adopted new labeling laws of their own.

The new labels will undoubtedly affect a huge portion of the food industry: It’s estimated that 75 to 80 percent of foods contain GMOs, most of which are corn- and soy-based. Crops are often genetically modified to make them heartier and more resistant to pesticides, or to boost levels of certain nutrients; because of that, GMOs are touted by many scientists as being a necessary and important tool for making food healthier and feeding people around the world.

The FDA says that GMOs are safe, and a recent scientific review from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine agreed. To date, there have been no established links between the consumption of GMOs and rates of cancer, kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, food allergies, or autism, found the National Academies review.

But because there isn’t much long-term data on the health effects of GMOs, some consumer advocacy groups worry about potential health or environmental risks. At the very least, they say, people have a right to know what they’re eating, and to decide for themselves whether they purchase genetically modified products.

So is labeling GMOs a good thing or a bad thing? That depends who you ask. In the past, the scientists and the food industry have argued against GMO labeling, worrying that putting the term “genetically modified” or “genetic engineering” on a product may scare consumers away from buying a perfectly healthy food.

The need for labeling could also add extra expenses to the production and regulation process, they say. And if there’s backlash against their products, it could hurt farmers by forcing them to go back to old technologies—some of which are more chemical- and labor-intensive than what they’re currently using.

But watchdog groups such as the Center for Food Safety have also criticized the new ruling, arguing that the option to use a QR code discriminates against poor people, the elderly, and others who are less likely to use smartphones while shopping for food.

Kevin Fota, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, sees several problems with the new law. “First, it’s unnecessary,” he says. “Such laws only tell consumers about the farming process, not the product itself. Oil form a genetically modified soybean is exactly the same as oil from a non-GMO soybean, so why should we have to say which is which?”

But he also agrees with critics of the new law that cryptic symbols and scannable QR codes aren’t the answer. “Opponents of technology say that companies are trying to hide what they’re doing, and these three options just reinforce what they’re claiming,” he says.

Fota does support voluntary labeling of food products, and notes that large companies such as Campbell’s and The Hershey Company are already stating on their labels if a product is made with genetically modified ingredients. “Frankly, most people don’t worry about it too much,” he says. (If you do want to avoid GMOs, you can also buy organic or look for foods with the “Non GMO Project Verified” seal.)

Overall, the new law is a compromise—a way of letting consumers who really do their homework know if a food contains GMOs, without requiring companies to spell it out in plain language. And while neither side of the debate may be happy with the results, the change will at least bring some standardization to the industry. What the new labeling actually looks like, and how it’s received by the public once it’s on store shelves, remains to be seen.

Ultimately, Fota would like to see more transparency in the food industry. Consumers should have a better idea of what GMOs really are, he says, rather than only hearing from anti-GMO groups calling for bans or boycotts of the technology. “If people want to know how their food is made, I support that,” he says. “But any labeling efforts need to go hand in hand with a lot of education.”