California’s GMO Labeling Initiative – A Customer’s Perspective

At an Earth Day festival in the San Francisco Bay Area this year, a GMO labeling activist grabbed my arm and told me that labeling GMOs was ‘a matter of life and death.’  A few months and a lot of signatures later, the initiative met the requirements to be voted on this November.

As a Californian and an environmentally concerned citizen, I’ve been following the developing dialogue on GMOs with interest. I’ve seen a growing divide between public’s perception of genetic engineering and the scientific community’s. And while Ishare concerns over the long term effects of genetic engineering, I really don’t like the reactionary rhetoric being used to promote labeling. In other words, I’m a fence-sitter.  Instead of taking a stance, I’ve been talking to people: scientists, farmers, environmentalists, parents, science teachers. I’m no closer to making a decision, but I’ve been able to look at the major arguments of each side.

As far as I can tell, the argument in favor of labeling is based on:

  • Desire to make and promote transparent, educated choices. As food purchasers we want more information about our food so we can make responsible choices for our own health and that of the environment.
  •  Concern about the long term effects of GMOs on human and environmental safety.  The safety testing and information on GMOs is not readily accessible to consumers, and the info that is available tends to be from activists who emphasize risks
  • Cultural or philosophical distrust of genetic engineering. Could anything seem less natural or intuitive than using a gene gun to inject a gene into a plant cell?
  • Desire to boycott / financially damage the biotech industry. GMOs are associated with big corporations like Monsanto, which for many of us is symbolic of all the things that are wrong with our monopolistic, corporate food system. Reduced demand for GM foods is likely to affect the industry and hurt corporate fat cats.
  • The fact that other countries have labeling. Many people infer that the lack of labeling is due to a Big Ag / Monsanto conspiracy to keep American consumers in the dark.Europe, for example, has a much more precautionary approach toward GM foods that labeling advocates want to see adopted in the US.

I can sympathize with a number of these points. I don’t likemany of Monsanto’s intellectual rights policies, and agree thatit’s hard to predict the long term impact of genetic engineering. I’m also hugely in favor of giving people the information they need to make informed choices, although there are things that matter more to me than whether a crop has been genetically engineered. (Such as: how are the workers on the farm treated? What kind of pest management strategies does the farm use? What is the farm’s impact on local water and soil systems? How much energy was used to process this food?)

At the same time, I don’t see GMO labeling as scientifically mandated or necessarily worth the bureaucracy or expense enforcing it will require. Opponents of labeling argue that:

  • It’s not hard to avoid GM ingredients or foods. It takes about two minutes of research to find out what the most common GM crops are, and if you eat mostly organic or mostly whole foods, you already have a diet low in GMOs.
  • Each GM crop has different health and environmental implications. A label, like the one on cigarettes, implies that all GM foods can be meaningfully grouped together. However, genetic engineering technology is very diverse, and different strategies are used to combat different pests – with different implications. Monsanto’s Bt corn, for example, employs a bacterium that is activated in the high pH of insect guts. The virus-resistant papaya, a crop developed by the University of Hawaii, is essentially vaccinated against ringspot virus. Some GM crops have been more extensively tested for allergens and human health than others
  • Enforcing labeling requirements seems likely to raisefood costs for a majority of people who can’t afford or do not want to pay for organic food
  • California’s labeling initiative includes a number of exemptions (e.g. no labels would be required for livestock fed on GM feed or genetically engineered enzymes) , making it somewhat difficult to tell what has GMOs or not.
  • Other mandatory labels such as on alcohol or cigarettes are based on large amounts of scientific data proving harm. That’s not true of GMOs. General scientific consensus right now is cautiously optimistic about the safety of the available GM crops for humans.

This last point is what matters most to me. I don’t really have a dog in this hunt – I’m OK eating GM ingredients, OK not eating them, and believe they’re capable of both environmental benefit and harm. I support consumer rights, but do I support them over contradicting scientific evidence? When public opinion and science clash, which one gets to dictate public policy?

Several alternatives to California’s labeling initiative have been suggested. There’s the voluntary no-GMO label, which many organic and natural food companies already use. They pay to have their products independently tested. People who want that assurance have the option of paying a premium for the labeled products. That’s the way rBST labeling in milk works. Anoption I like even better, suggested by my spouse,  is to label the specific GM ingredients in the ingredients list rather than slapping a big, scary label on front. That way, people who want to know can read the labels and choose which GMOs they want to avoid. People who are interested in avoiding certain ingredients, like artificial colors or high fructose corn syrup, already do this.

For me, it’s probably going to come down to the bottom line. How much would labeling cost to implement, and how would it affect food prices for the people who don’t buy organic? I’m waiting on that study. I hope it will come out before I have to vote.

Meet the author: Jennifer Mo is a concerned global citizen living in northern California. She thinks and blogs at It’s Not Easy to Be Green.

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  1. […] guest blogging over at the Just Farmers blog today about California’s GMO labeling initiative. It’s an issue that I’m solidly […]

  2. Anthony says:

    I feel as if you opened my brain and took out every thought I’ve been having about the GMO-labeling issue. Glad I’m not the only one on the fence!

  3. Ben says:

    I am against labeling. I am not a Monsanto employee, and in fact I used to work for one of their biggest competitors. I like your cautioned approach to the issue. Just some comments on some of the points you mention. 1) The exemptions to labeling in the California proposition illustrate the inconsistency in the argument for labels. Why is it okay to eat animals fed GM products, but not the products themselves? Why should alcoholic beverages (possibly made with GM hops, grapes, or corn) be exempt from labeling? Why should food served in a restaurant be exempt? 2) The logistics of labeling/keeping track of different GM ingredients would be astronomical. The label would have to be something along the lines of “may contain ingredients from Genetically Modified Organisms” like what is done with vegetable oil content or potential for nut contamination, but the staunchest proponents of labeling would probably not be happy unless a skull and crossbones is plastered on the front of the product label. 3) The argument that everyone else labels GMO is disingenuous. Labeling in Europe was brought on as a result of the poor handling of the mad cow disease outbreak by European government agencies and an orchestrated campaign by Greenpeace and other groups to create hysteria over GMOs. It is also driven by farmers in those countries trying to maintain a competitive marketing advantage against US commodities. Third world countries who have GMO labeling requirements or restrictions do so as a result of further Greenpeace hysteria and a lack of scientific evidence, resulting in some countries refusing food shipments of GMO products while their people are starving. 4) European countries have been influenced by Greenpeace and others to subscribe to strict adherence to the “precautionary principle”, which holds that if there is any risk from a product, that product is to be avoided. Thankfully, here is the US, our government holds to the concept of risk/benefit, which holds that if the benefits outweigh the risks, a product should be allowed.

  4. hutch says:

    climate change is another issue that falls in that too many questions and too much contradictory science too move too fast on and create legislation that could do irrepairable damage to our food source and economy. i agree Jennifer, be cautious, but perform the due diligence. there is way too much fearmongering with our current media and social media situation

  5. This seems like a balanced appraisal of the situation. It’s also important to keep in mind the line between “I want this information,” “I have a right to this information”, and “We should force companies to give out this information.” Wanting something doesn’t justify passing a law forcing other people to comply.

    I’ve tried to clarify this in a blog entry of my own, The Right to Know What I’m Eating.

  6. […] issue even offering a commonsense approach to labeling that opponents might even go along with. Check out that blog. The blog itself is run by three respected farmers – Jeff Fowle, Northern California; Mike […]

  7. Thanks for writing! This is great to read and gives me things to think about. I agree the California initiative is weakened by its exemptions. (I wonder how those happened.)

    Part of me thinks that labeling is not really about labeling. It is easy to argue against it because it will be weak or it will be expensive to implement or it will raise food costs (all points I agree are very valid) or too that it is unnecessary because we already have USDA Organic and voluntary non-GMO labels (a point I disagree more with – I don't think this is a great system. Yes, it exists and does point to some non-GMO foods, but, for example, I can stare at the entire meat case at Whole Foods and nothing bears a USDA Organic or non-GMO label. Surely though, something in there is GMO-free. If not, perhaps this labeling initiative would spur interest in getting some labels on meat too. Just one example of my perceived weakness of the current system.)

    But my point is, as I said, labeling is not about labeling. Labeling is a consumer outcry that we are frustrated by the information we hear about GM crops, as a food source and as a part of the environment and part of a farm worker's environment. The failed Vermont push and now the California initiative is at its heart, the only way the GM-concerned citizenry can poke a hole in the veneer. After all, it only stands a chance in California because it is a ballot initiative and not left up to legislators, like it had been in Vermont.

    Labeling is something for consumers to rally behind in an effort to share their message to government regulators, producers, seed companies, farmers, anyone who'll listen, that there is distrust in GMOs. I think industry would be better served addressing that consumer distrust rather than debating the label issue.

    And speaking of that distrust, you make the last point that "General scientific consensus right now is cautiously optimistic about the safety of the available GM crops for humans." I'm curious how you come to that? You state it as though it were fact, but I guess the best we all can do is do a lot of reading and develop our own analysis of all the various research data we read.

    Do the scientific opinions in this recent report from Earth Open Source give you pause at all? ( These are genetic engineers and researchers writing a 123 page report citing 600 other scientific and peer-reviewed reports that question much about GM crops, regulations, testing and food safety.

    Again, thanks for the dialogue!

    – Grant

  8. Ana Astrid Molina F says:

    Jennifer, Great Article! I like your husband's idea.

  9. […] been thinking and writing about them after our Meal One. Our friends at Just Farmers are blogging about whether the labeling is a good idea or not. A lengthy report from genetic engineers and […]

  10. […] this summer, I wrote a post for farmer Mike Haley on what GMO labeling looked like from a consumer’s point of view — well, mine, specifically. He agreed to return the favor and talk about how labeling would […]

  11. […] this summer Jennifer Mo wrote an excellent guest post for Just Farmers sharing her thoughts on GMO labeling. I am excited that she has also invited me to offer my perspective on her blog thus got […]

  12. […] Haley’s, Labeling, Post, Take Earlier this summer, I wrote a post for farmer Mike Haley on what GMO labeling looked like from a consumer’s point of view — well, mine, specifically. He agreed to return the favor and talk about how labeling would […]

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  27. […] this summer, I wrote a post for farmer Mike Haley on what GMO labeling looked like from a consumer’s point of view — well, mine, specifically. He agreed to return the favor and talk about how labeling would […]

  28. […] this summer season, I wrote a post for farmer Mike Haley on what GMO labeling looked like from a consumer&#8217s point of view &#8212 well, mine, specifically. He agreed to return the favor and talk about how labeling […]

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