Foresight on Food Politics: Six Important Questions to Ask about GMO Labeling

Questions GMO labeling proponents should answer

The potential introduction looms of another bill at the federal level that would require labeling on all foods using genetically modified crops. Here are a half dozen hard questions to ask of the supporters of such state and federal legislation.

Following in the footsteps of neighboring Missouri and Colorado state legislatures, which have introduced state bills that would require all food that is a product of GMO technology sold in the state to be labeled as such, at least two U.S. congressmen have announced support for similar legislation at a national level. Several other states that have introduced such legislation in order to, according to supporters of the measure, “…give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and conventional products.”

Who can be against consumer choice? You may be, once you find out what GMO labeling really entails, and what it ultimately means (and doesn’t mean). Here are six good reasons to think hard about supporting mandatory GMO food labeling.

Is it or isn't it GMO? Is it or isn’t it? Like the spongy label claim of “natural,” the definition of “genetically modified” can be subject to the eye of the beholder. Strictly speaking, nearly every modern food item you stock today has been genetically modified from its original plant or animal ancestors—a scientific and often highly technological practice that plant and animal breeders have refined for millennia. Opponents of making those improvements through modern techniques, in an attempt to draw a bright line at the laboratory door, use equally vague terms like “biotechnology” and “natural means” that ignore the quite unnatural but non-GMO technologies that support the natural acts of animal and plant breeding—from physically removing the male parts of corn plants in order to force cross-pollination between varieties, to chemically washing the semen of dairy cattle in order to increase the percentage of (more valuable) female cattle born.

Then, atop that confusion add the dimension of animal products. First, if animals are not genetically modified themselves, but only the natural offspring of genetically modified breeding stock, are those animals to be defined as GMO? It’s unclear from a careful reading of most state bills whether they would or wouldn’t be considered so. Second, what of non-GMO animals that are fed GMO feeds? Would they become what they eat, forcing them to labeled as GMO? In the case of organic, for instance, feeding an organic cow non-organic feed renders the milk and meat non-organic; would the same be true of GMO?

Though it may eventually be possible to precisely define what biotechnology is and is not, translating those precise terms into a meaningful two- or three-word label claim becomes an exercise not in clarity, but in confusion.

Mike Smith discuss biotech transparency labelingClick here to listen
to Farmer Goes to Market
co-founder and editor Mike Smith
discuss the issues of "transparency by labeling"
with radio host Trent Loos.


GMO Labeling Wouldn't it be easier to label what’s not GMO? Biotech crops have now been cultivated for more than 15 years, providing food for millions of people over the course of those years. In the United States, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents biotech companies, 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of cotton are now biotech varieties. And because corn and soybean meal are the No.1 and No. 2 ingredients in livestock feed, it follows that the majority of beef, pork, poultry, eggs and milk are now fed biotech crops. Putting aside the obvious questions (see below) of the practicality of teasing apart the two food streams from one another in order to label them, the real question remains of what would be unlabeled at the end of the day. In fact, many biotech advocates argue this is the end game of mandatory labeling--to simply remind consumers how pervasive the technology has become, and to make more-lucrative non-GMO niche foods stand out in bright contrast. "If labeling is allowed, poorly informed critics of genetically enhanced foods would use it to demonize by labeling,” Roger Beachy, a biotechnology pioneer told the Nebraska Governors Ag Conference in Kearney in early February.

Where would labeling stop? Where do you stop? It’s easy to argue “consumers want to know if they’re buying GMO.” Numerous polls, in fact, find consumers say they want GMO products labeled—up to almost nine in 10, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. But the obvious follow-up question that’s never asked is the more important one: “What do you want the label to tell you about GMO?” The typical consumer doesn’t even know enough about what they don’t know about GMO to ask the question, a reality that explains the trend you see in which consumer support for labeling goes down the more they learn about biotechnology.

What else must we label for consumer choice? As long as consumers hear unchallenged assertions in the media that GMO is unsafe and high-risk (which it categorically is not, at least according to National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, the American Medical Association, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization), then pro-labeling surveys like the CBS/Times one might just as well ask consumers, “Do you want your food labeled “Safe” vs. “Unsafe?” In that sense, it’s a wonder the portion demanding labeling is only nine in 10. However, if you concur with the scientific authorities that biotechnology is safe--that it’s no indication of food safety-- then the pressing question becomes: What’s the real reason consumers need to be given a choice between GMO and non-GMO? It opens up the proverbial Pandora’s box of what safe-but-potentially-objectionable food trait should be labeled next. Irrigated crops vs. non-irrigated (no difference in safety, but could withdraw water from the environment)? Hand-picked vs. machine-picked (no difference in safety, but could be encouraging illegal immigration)? Small farm vs. large (no difference in safety, but could be encouraging corporate consolidation of farming)? Patented seed technology vs. heirloom? You may argue a portion of your consumers want to know each of those, but you’d likely not support the law to mandate it.

Is this market puffery? Should the state be supporting marketing puffery? Granted, biotech seed and animal companies oppose GMO labeling because they’ve invested billions in research and development of the products that come from them—a fact often “exposed” by advocates for mandatory labeling. But an equally inconvenient truth that seldom gets exposed to sunlight by lazy media reporting is the fact that most labeling initiatives are underwritten by the country’s organic and natural-foods industry. Whether their underlying objection to biotech foods is genuine or not, there’s no denying they would enjoy a market windfall should the government officially sanction their product lines by proxy by requiring their competition to put a label on their products that has been associated—by them—with questionable food safety.

Dividing the channel...a good idea? Do we want to needlessly, and painfully, divide the distribution channels? If you thought COOL labeling was a headache, you haven’t seen the first of it should GMO labeling see fruition. State-by-state adoption, as appears to be the strategy of GMO opponents, would require the system set up two markets—a state-wide market only and then one for the rest of the country. And even if GMO labeling were adopted on a national scale, pulling apart the two systems would create the costs, headaches and product shortages that have plagued the organic system—only on a huge scale.

Are we seeding distrust?Doesn't this just take us further down the road of compounding apparent confusion and undue fear? Which is to say, confusion in the system, not the consumer, that is. Trust is already falling in the world’s food system, and despite labeling proponents’ claims they’re only giving consumers information they need to improve that trust, experience demonstrates the opposite is bound to occur. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration considers biotech foods to be substantially equivalent to non-biotech foods, and likely will continue to do so until good science counsels otherwise. Inviting the credibility fiasco that is the rbST-milk labeling issue (“From cows not treated with rbST, but there’s no significant difference shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows”), or the hormone-free chicken chicanery (growth hormone use has been illegal in U.S. chickens four nearly four decades), on nearly ever food package is a recipe for diminished faith in food, not strengthened. The food regulatory system is backing itself into a corner in which, by trying to appease one small but vocal segment in the name of “consumer choice,” it leaves itself less room to validly object to doing it for the next special interest that comes complaining. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, GMO-labeling advocate though he is, accidentally gets it right when he shrilly points out the very contradiction he’s agitating for: “…when feed corn is contaminated by [GMO] ethanol corn, the products produced from it won’t be organic. (On the one hand, USDA. joins the FDA in not seeing GE foods as materially different; on the other it limits the amount found in organic foods. Hello? Guys? Could you at least pretend to be consistent?)” Exactly right, Mark: Consistently wrong is still wrong.

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