GMO Labeling: What’s the Story?

GMOConsumers want to know.   Certain interests in the food industry don’t want them to know.   Thus is the controversy over labeling of foods that have been genetically modified (GMO).  Interestingly,  the US is one of the few countries in the world in which this debate is raging;  most other industrialized or industrializing nations have compulsory labeling or outright bans on GMO.    But why is this disclosure being fought so vigorously by some large agri-businesses?

Agribusiness has spent tens of millions of dollars, that we know of, fighting off mandatory disclosure.  In 2012,  the food industry spent nearly $46 million to defeat California’s GMO labeling initiative.   The same battle was fought in Washington state – the industry is reported to have spent $20 million to kill this similar initiative.   The food manufacturers and their allies argue that labeling would cause food costs to increase, yet the European Union has mandated the same labeling requirements with no evidence of grocery cost increases.

So what really gives?   Not surprisingly, there are lots of pro and cons arguments relating to GMO labeling.  It is hardly surprising that agribusiness is resisting disclosure, what particularly intrigues me is the aggressiveness of its opposition to  fight off a requirement that is globally embraced.     Moreover, GMO labeling is entirely consistent with a ethic that has been embraced by the U.S. consumer for almost one-hundred years:  food ingredients should be disclosed so that consumers can make informed choices about what they ingest.   With an explosion in allergies that are possibly linked to GMO foods,  the importance of labeling increases dramatically.    This is a seeming no-brainer.

A law currently pending in Congress is H.R. 1599, the misleadingly named “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling (SAFE) Act,” which would make federal GMO labeling voluntary, while prohibiting states from labeling GMOs — even though it goes against the vast majority of the public wants.  According to a New York Times poll that, 93 percent of Americans want GMO foods to labeled as such, with three-quarters of survey respondents expressing concern about GMOs in food. The industry-backed bill, which opponents have nicknamed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act” has already passed the House of Representatives and, if passed, could overturn democratically enacted state laws if it is passed by the Senate.

In 2012 Californians were convinced that labeling was bad for them (by a bare majority) and Washingtonians were subject to the same onslaught of skepticism. So why is the food “industry” is spending aggressively to fight a no-brainer? (BTW, the food industry is largely Monsanto and DuPont…..each of these companies have spent over $20 million so far to fight these two initiatives.   Another $10 million have been spent by three “food science” companies)   Companies don’t spend this kind of money on a “principle”;  they view the labeling issue as a big deal.

So are the opponents just buying time?   Do they really believe that Americans will want to continue to remain ignorant about the health threat inherent in so much of their food?   Well, given that Twinkies have returned to popular demand, perhaps the opponents are on to something.  But the increasing evidence of rising cancer and allergy rates that track the introduction of GMO food into the country’s food chain can be kept under wraps for just so long.  Like the frequency radiation from cellular phones — which turned out to have some scientific basis in light of recent studies showing theoretical DNA effects from radio frequency energy — proof has been difficult to secure.   Agribusiness knows that scientific uncertainty — whether it be regarding cell phones, tobacco, climate change or GMO — can be used to forestall the inevitable.

The proponents of GMO foods argue that it is all about innovation and scientific advancement.   The editors of Scientific American make a concise argument to this effect.   They believe labeling would intensify misconceptions, even though most Western nations have been labeling GMO foods for years.  Ultimately, it really all comes down to money. Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont are making huge amounts of money from agricultural GMO-related assets.   Forbes reports that Monsanto made $909 million in the one fiscal quarter alone and is expecting 20% growth in 2013.   It’s profits from weedkiller products (Round-Up) were $284 million in the last quarter alone.    This is real dollars here, not piggy-bank money.   When large companies have invested significant and are reaping billion dollar annual returns, they are prepared to spend very heavily to maintain that status quo.    And, like the tobacco companies or the climate change deniers, they’ll use every trick in their playbook to sew GMO seeds of doubt in the minds of voters.    Ultimately, voters will have to make a decision in the face of inadequate facts.   There will be no scientific smoking gun linked to GMO health impacts.   There will be no authoritative, independent assessment of the impacts of labeling.   There will be few, if any, inarguable facts upon which voters can hang their hats.   So, unlike agribusiness, which shuns principled-decisions,  voters will have to make a decision based upon principle.

One scientist who has been sharply critical of GM crops is David Williams, a cellular biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. He says that “inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later,” which can result in potentially toxic plants. In addition, faulty monitoring of GM field tests presents another danger. For example, from 2008 to 2014, only 39 of the 133 GM crop field trials in India were properly monitored, “leaving the rest for unknown risks and possible health hazards.”

Consumer advocates would argue that the overriding principle is one of knowledge.   Consumers should know what they are eating, what they are feeding their children and what they are exporting overseas to less-knowledgeable consumers.   This right to know is an inalienable one and, in our information age, an increasingly important one.  Information is, indeed, power and this kind of vital information will have impacts upon future generations.    Fortunately, recent developments in the retail sector will likely force agribusinesses’ hands.   Recently, a large fast food chains (Chipotle) announced that it would no longer use GMO foods in its food supply.   McDonald’s similarly turned thumbs down on GMO potatoes.   Ben & Jerry’s took the lead on removing all GMO ingredients from its products.    Kroger and Safeway committed not to sell GMO salmon.   Cereal giant General Mills recently removed GMO ingredients from Cheerios and Post quickly followed suit, removing GMOs from Grape Nuts.   Increasingly, large corporate customers of agribusiness will begin to dictate terms upon which they will accept GMO food in their supply chains.

A new European Union law signed in March 2015 allows individual member countries to be excluded from any GM cultivation approval request. European opposition to GMOs has been strong: Unlike in the Americas and Asia, where GMO crops are widely grown, only Monsanto’s pest-resistant MON810, a GMO maize, is grown in Europe. Several nations have taken advantage of the new exclusion law: Scotland, Germany, Latvia, Greece, France and recently, Northern Ireland, have all invoked it. In August, Scotland became the first EU nation to ban the growing of genetically modified crops by requesting to be excluded by Monsanto’s application to grow GMO crops across the EU.

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