The Grocery Manufacturers Association is hosting a Washington, D.C. summit tomorrow, July 10, inviting over 300 companies to discuss the labeling of genetically modified foods. The meeting is in response to attempts on a state by state basis to require labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients. In more than 25 states legislation or initiative petition requiring labeling has been introduced, most famously in California, where forty million dollars was spent to defeat a ballot proposal requiring labeling. Two states have approved labeling, although Connecticut’s approval is contingent on neighboring states also requiring labeling. Although the safety of GMOs is not really in doubt, and the FDA’s position against labeling is well-reasoned and strong, opponents of the technology will continue to lobby for labels whenever and wherever they can. The Senate recently rejected mandatory labeling by a vote of 71 to 27, hence the emphasis on changing state laws.
The organizers of the summit are publicly taking a position of openness, claiming that the attendees might well choose to double down on their present opposition to labeling and embark upon a campaign to educate consumers about GMOs. This is unlikely, given the past record of big companies’ willingness to take a stand on principle. The smart money would be on an agreement to adopt some form of nation wide labeling. This reaction will be understandable and perhaps even defensible from the point of view of the companies involved. Sorting products by state and labeling them in fifty different ways would be a nightmare of Kafka-esque proportions, which is exactly why the proponents of labeling have taken the fight to state capitols.
So, the more interesting discussions will be over the contents of the label. It would probably have to be located somewhere else on the package other than where FDA required labeling appears, since according to the FDA, there isn’t any difference between genetically modified foods and those food items developed by conventional breeding. If an industry adopted label is used and included in the FDA label, then the value of the FDA label will be lessened. An FDA label will no longer be about science, but rather about the ability to apply political pressure, state by state.
It will be in the industry’s interest to have as benign a label as possible, while the backers of GMO labeling will no doubt lobby for an iridescent skull and crossbones. As a farmer who has used the technology for nearly two decades, my suggestions won’t be heeded, but, in order to help start the conversation, herewith some suggestions, all to be prefaced by the information that the product being labeled contains GMOs:
• “You, as well as 300 million other Americans, have been eating this stuff for 20 years. If there were a problem, it would have shown up by now.”
• “We’ve been selectively improving crops and animals for, oh, 10,000 years or so. There’s nothing natural about this product, or anything else you’ve ever eaten.”
• “By consuming this product, you’re helping farmers save million of tons of soil. Enjoy!”
• “By consuming this product, you’re helping farmers to cut their use of insecticides by millions of pounds. Enjoy!”
• “Products without this label may have been developed by exposing seeds to radiation, and then sprouting the seeds to find out if any beneficial mutations occurred. Products with this label have benefited from the precise addition of a single gene. Your call.”
• “Critics of this technology point out that the main benefits of the technology have accrued to farmers and not consumers. The same critics have opposed the introduction of GM products that can save lives and prevent blindness in third world children. If this reminds you of the old story about the young man who murdered his parents and then asked for court’s mercy because he was an orphan, you aren’t alone. Avoiding this product will make it more likely that lifesaving technologies won’t be developed/marketed in the future. Your call.”
Agriculture has managed to increase the food available per person as the world population has doubled, while at the same time reducing the number of acres under cultivation. This has been a great boon to wildlife and forests the world over. This has happened because of the benefits of agricultural research and technology, including the development of genetically modified seeds. By avoiding this product, you’ll make further improvements in yield and productivity much less likely.”
“Developers of this technology were recently awarded the World Food Prize. You can recognize their contribution to humanity by calling this number.”
On second thought, maybe I do have a future as a label writer, and maybe labeling GMOs can serve a public good. I offer these labels with no thought of financial gain, and will be satisfied with a small acknowledgement of authorship on every food item sold.
Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri.