It’s early November 2012, and California is teetering on the precipice of an extraordinary drought that would eventually spark the governor to declare a state of emergency and strict limits on water use.

But inside their homes, California citizens are experiencing a different type of “natural” disaster, a tsunami of television, radio and print advertisements attempting to sway voters to either pass or kill Proposition 37, controversial legislation that would require all foods made with genetically engineered ingredients—also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—to be labeled as such. It's extremely close: “Prop 37” fails to pass by just 353,700 votes—a mere 2.8 percent margin.

Despite the near-equal results, however, those against mandatory GMO labeling outspent their opponents by a whopping $37 million. Big Food spent lavishly to convince voters that labeling GMOs would raise food prices by “billions of dollars” (not true) and dwindle the economy (also not true). The largest company that lobbied against the state-specific legislation was (surprise!) also the largest manufacturer of genetically engineered seeds in the world—Monsanto Co., the verifiable villain of the good food movement, which donated more than $8 million to the “No on 37” campaign. Mandatory state labeling is blocked … for now.  

Fast-forward to 2016, and a lot has changed. To date, third-party certifier the Non-GMO Project has verified more than 39,000 natural products, making the “butterfly” label one of the most recognized seals on store shelves. Non-GMO Project Verified products garner $19.2 billion—yes, billion with a “b”—in annual sales, which supports the polls that show 93 percent of Americans would like to see GMOs labeled on food and beverage packages.

The good news

The good news: Nationally required GMO labels will soon be coming to a store near you. In July 2016, President Obama signed into law a bill that requires food companies across the nation to disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients, a move that some natural advocates, such as the Organic Trade Association, lauded. “This legislation includes provisions that are excellent for organic farmers and food makers—and for the millions of consumers who choose organic every day—because they recognize, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the marketplace,” the association said in a statement.

At first glance, the federal law, which says a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard must be crafted in two years, sounds stellar. Isn’t this the exact legislation GMO labeling advocates have worked for years to achieve? Well, not exactly.

Importantly, the law suffers gaping loopholes that can obscure the presence of genetically engineered ingredients. Although champions of GMO labeling have always rooted for greater food transparency, under the new law, food brands aren’t required to include a straightforward indication that GMOs are present, such as one that simply reads “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” on the package. Rather, the new law allows brands to disclose GMO ingredients via veiled tactics, such as through a QR code, phone number or website listed on the package—all methods that demand a smartphone or cell phone to decipher.

This is bad for a number of reasons, the least of which is that it would be plain annoying to pull out your smartphone, track down your grocery store’s Wi-Fi password, download the QR code app, scan the code and wait for the information to upload onto your phone—all just to find out whether a product was made with genetically engineered ingredients. “Let’s say [a shopper] has 50 products in his basket,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California, who avidly opposed the bill. “Does he have to make 50 phone calls? Can you imagine looking up 50 websites? Scanning 50 different QR codes with a confusing cell phone app?”

Some say the law discriminates against Americans who cannot afford a smartphone, who live in rural areas where cell service or Wi-Fi is spotty, or who are senior citizens. Just 30 percent of people older than 65 even own a smartphone, says Pew Research Center. Such obstacles in this recent legislation indicate that steps to responsibly create, use and sell genetically engineered ingredients are not over.

But as we move into an era of greater understanding about this still-fledgling technology, it behooves shoppers to understand the reasons why it’s important to shop for non-GMO foods, of course, as well as the arguments against them.