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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