Steven Novella, one of my favorite science bloggers and podcasters wrote a good piece on GMO labeling and why it's a bad idea.
Should There Be Mandatory GMO Labeling?
Campbell Soup has just announced that they are switching sides in the GMO labeling debate – they are now in favor of federal mandatory labeling for all products that contain genetically modified organisms. This has perhaps opened up a new chapter in the debate.
In response Mark Lynas, a journalist who, after researching the topic, is staunchly pro-GMO, has responded with an interesting essay agreeing with this move by Campbell.
Let me state up front that I think the answer to mandatory labeling is no, but let me also walk you through my thinking on this complex issue.
The Scientific Case
I will start with the easier question – is there scientific justification for mandatory labeling of GMOs? The answer here is clearly no.
What we have, through the FDA and USDA, is a regulatory system that reasonably assures the public that GMO foods are safe and nutritionally equivalent. In terms of food safety and quality, labeling is therefore redundant.
There is also no particular reason to fear that products of genetic engineering have specific risks, or that they are more likely to have unintended risks than many other methods of producing new cultivars. Why label GMOs and not hybrid crops, or those that result from mutation farming or the use of technology to force species to breed that cannot mix on their own?
The very notion of GMOs is a false dichotomy. Opponents then argue that transgenic GMOs, using genes from distant species that could not mix in nature, is different than the other methods. This is factually wrong and logically dubious.
First, horizontal gene transfer allows for genes from other kingdoms to mix into plants and even animals. In fact it was recently discovered that most sweet potatoes today have a gene derived from a soil bacteria, incorporated naturally thousands of years ago.
More importantly, who cares? The source of a gene is irrelevant, only its effect in the organism matters. Putting a fish gene in a tomato does not give you a fishmato, as anti-GMO propaganda suggests (and actually has convinced many naive people that such tomatoes would be fishy). Fish and tomatoes already share about 60% of their genes.
The case against the safety or equivalence of GMO products has utterly collapsed, and so some in the anti-GMO camp resort to other arguments. For example, many people will bring up patent law or the effect of current GMOs on agricultural practices. They don’t want to support GMOs because they don’t want to support those practices.
These arguments are also the product of successful anti-GMO propaganda. Mostly, they are tangential to the GMO issue. If you have a problem with patents, you should know that seeds that are the products of hybrid and mutation technologies are also patented. If that is your issue, then you should be in favor of labeling all food derived from patented seeds.
Issues of farming practice are complex, but let me just say here that using GMOs is not a decisive factor. GMO technology may help, may hurt, or be completely neutral to farming practice depending upon the specific organism. Why should Arctic Apples be labeled because you don’t like that corn is grown largely as a monocrop? It misses the point entirely.
The bottom line is that there is no scientific or rational reason to label GMOs.
The Political and Practical Case
The scientific question aside, there are political and practical issues with labeling that make the issue more complex. These issue essentially boil down to one of strategy.
The anti-GMO crowd has brilliantly used the labeling issue to fantastic propaganda benefit. Of that there is no question. It puts those who are pro-science on the GMO issue in a no-win situation.
The anti-GMO crowd has used the labeling question to frame the issues of GMOs as one of public choice. If you are anti-labeling then you are anti-choice. Companies who are anti-labeling are trying to hide something nefarious from the public.
Mark Lynas, who in his essay is pro-Federal GMO labeling, thinks that the only way to take this propaganda victory from the anti-GMO activists is to just give in to federal mandatory labeling. He argues that reassuring people with the science is not going to work.
From the perspective of a company like Campbell the political calculus also seems clear. First, they would much rather have one Federal labeling law than a patchwork of state labeling laws. The latter would be the worst-case scenario for any food company, and I can understand why they would want to avoid this.
Second, companies are concerned (rightly) about their brand reputation. Campbell is essentially concluding that the anti-GMO activists have won on this issue, and their only choice as a company is to go with it. If they oppose GMO labeling, then they can be portrayed as hiding something and being against consumer choice.
Campbell is also openly pro-GMO, and they state so in their press release. In essence they have decided to be “out and proud” as users of GMO technology.
Mark Lynas and Campbell seem to agree on this strategy – get rid of the choice issue, be out and proud, and then just educate consumers about the safety and benefits of GMOs. The sky won’t fall, consumers will be reassured that nothing is being hidden from them, and then comfort level with GMOs will rise.
Mark also argues that once we have a federal mandate to label all GMOs, this will flip the narrative on the anti-GMO crowd. Now, if they try to go beyond labeling to banning, they are the ones who are anti-choice. Mark feels that politically they won’t be able to push for banning once labels are mandatory.
I am not convinced.
I think all of Mark’s points have some validity and are strategically interesting. However, it does come down ultimately to predicting the future – how will the complex organism of society respond?
I think it is naive to believe that the anti-GMO crowd will not push for banning once they have labeling. They have successfully demonized GMOs and the companies who produce them, largely through misinformation, distortion, cherry picking, and outright lying. Now they want to capitalize on that groundwork by labeling GMOs.
If they win on that front, they will increase, if anything, their demonization of GMOs. They will push for banning, county by county, state by state, and also push for federal laws to make producing or using GMOs all but impossible.
That is partly what the labeling issue is about also. Make it such a burden that companies will choose to go GMO free for the practical and propaganda benefits (even in the absence of any scientific reason).
Look at the organic label in the US. The USDA resisted an official organic label for years, based on scientific grounds. There is no evidence that organic produce is safer, healthier, or more nutritious, and so labeling will confer no benefit to the consumer.
They eventually relented to the argument that they could have a limited organic label, and explain to the public that the label is not a claim for any superiority, it only has to do with the method or production not the final product, and only serves the purpose of standardizing the use of the term “organic.” Their efforts were utterly futile.
After the USDA organic label came into effect, the organic industry exploded, based on the false impression that organic produce is superior, and supported largely by the legitimacy that the USDA label conferred. All of the USDA caveats were promptly forgotten, if they were ever even noticed.
I fear the same will be true for a GMO label. All of the government and scientific caveats about why food with GMOs are being labeled will be forgotten, and anti-GMO ideologues will use the mandatory labeling to argue that GMOs are not safe.
I guarantee you that there will be those who will argue that the government relented on mandatory labeling because they know that GMOs are not safe. They did so to cover their own behinds, without admitting any prior malfeasance. That will become the narrative. “If GMOs are safe, then why are they labeled,” will be the argument.
In the end, as Mark acknowledges, it comes down to public education. So why not educate them about why labeling is pointless, and even counterproductive.
Mandatory GMO labeling is actually misinforming the public. It perpetuates a false dichotomy, a misunderstanding of agriculture, and conflates different crops that have nothing to do with each other. The public will falsely believe that “GMO” means “evil pesticides,” even when they mean, “vitamin A added,” or something similar.
Mark is also missing a third option – voluntary labeling. Campbell is already labeling their products that contain GMOs. Companies can do this on their own, and test the market response.
What we really need is a federal law that preempts state laws that would create a ridiculous burden on companies. Mark seems to agree, but argues that politically this will not happen, so we might as well cave.
I say we fight the good fight. We need to change the political climate. I think it is actually happening to some degree. The vacuousness and deception of the anti-GMO propaganda machine is starting to get exposed. Let’s see how that plays out before we repeat the mistake of the USDA organic label.
You can find several other good pieces on the issue by searching the blog for GMO if you are interested.