Over the past week and a half, Mars, General Mills, ConAgra Foods, and Kellogg’s announced that they had decided to start labeling whether their products contain GMOs nationwide, in compliance with a pending Vermont statute. They see this as a way to avoid the cost of maintaining multiple systems for different states.
These companies clearly state that they agree with the scientific consensus that there are no safety issues with biotechnology as it has been applied to crops. Nonetheless, many observers believe that the ultimate impact of the Vermont labeling law will be to encourage companies to seek to use more non-GMO ingredients. That would, of course, be a major victory for the organizations that have promoted labeling and who are actually quite transparent about their agenda of eliminating use of the technology all together.
However this scenario plays out, there are three interesting questions to consider.
- Why do so many consumers say they want GMO labeling?
- Why was anyone against labeling in the first place?
- What might be the long-term effects of this labeling requirement on our food supply?
Why do so many consumers say they want GMO labeling?
This has much to do with how you ask the question. The term “GMO” is a misleading title made up by anti-GMO activists in Europe in the mid 1990s. It stands for “Genetically Modified Organism,” which isn’t a very good term to use since virtually every crop and animal used for food today has had its genetics dramatically modified from what ever it once was in the wild. However, since few consumers realize this, the term ”GMO” has the negative emotive effect that was intended.
If you use emotive language to ask people about other scary-sounding foods, you can get the same reaction. I’ve asked many people, “do you think cloned fruit should be labeled?” Virtually everyone says ”yes!” Then I explain that all fruit is “cloned” in the sense that it is vegetatively propagated by budding or from cuttings because if you grew it from seed you wouldn’t get the same variety. People have been doing this for millennia, but if I use the emotive term “cloned” I can get a “label it” response.
I also sometimes ask, “do you think that food grown with products made from animal excrement should be labeled?” Most people again say “yes” because I used an emotive term. In that case there is a small, but finite food safety risk associated with manures and composts, but we don’t label it.
In any case, after 20 years of active efforts to create fear around plant biotechnology, the label is nearly guaranteed to be seen as a negative by many consumers. Again, that is exactly what certain parties hope.
Why was anyone against labeling in the first place?
On the surface this seems like a logical question, but there were rational reasons to oppose these labels. The FDA wants to reserve the exercise of its labeling authority for things with real, documented risk issues such as food allergies, not for something like biotech crops for which extensive studies show no unique risk. Realistically, this has become a moot point. By allowing “non-GMO” and “GMO-free” labels, consumers are already being successfully recruited to buy this next example of “non-existence” food, following trends like ”gluten-free,” “fat-free,” “zero cholesterol” and the like. American consumers are so used to buying food for what it is not that we don’t even see the absurdity.
The reason that the processed food industry opposed labeling for biotech crops has to do with the costs and liabilities associated with maintaining distinct product flows in these very large scale, very low profit margin businesses. It costs money to clean out all the equipment, bins, trains and trucks used for bulk handling.
Depending on tolerances, it also opens companies up to liabilities for “adventitious presence.” In the absence of real risk, the costs just don’t make sense. “Identity preservation” of high value crops like apples, oranges or wine grapes is far more feasible, and it is routinely done, but for issues that matter like variety, appellation etc.
What might be long-term effects of labeling on the food supply?
This really depends on whether food companies have the courage to trust their customers enough to continue to use biotech-improved items even in the face of activist pressure. Will they stand-up for their decision (as the Girl Scouts have), or will they give in and start shifting to non-GMO ingredients?
Evidence suggest that many players will take the latter path and that will mean asking farmers to forgo crop traits that they have found to be very helpful. Returning to non-biotech will also make it harder for farmers to use environmentally-sound approaches like minimum-tillage. It will increase the need to spray for insect pests once controlled by Bt traits in the crops. The cost of those non-GMO ingredients will be higher, partly because of these disadvantages, but also because of what it will take to “identity preserve” the non-GMO harvest all the way down the handling, storage and processing stream.
Of greater concern is the possibility that food companies will be tempted to source cheaper version of these non-GMO ingredients from other countries. This has happened all too often for organic. That will open up the U.S. consumer to environmental pollutants (e.g. heavy metals) and to pesticides that have long been banned here, but which are still made and used in places like China and India. It will also mean getting items from regions that are much less attuned to the need to detect and exclude dangerous mycotoxins from the food supply.
If Vermont ends up initiating a trend towards more non-GMO products, we should be asking participating food companies to go on record promising that they won’t import the ingredients if they are available from the U.S. or other countries that enjoy a general context of sound environmental, food safety, and pesticide regulation. Without such assurances, we could have a serious case of unintended consequences.
Steve Savage – you are welcome to comment here and/or to send me an email ([email protected])
This article originally appeared in Forbes here and was reposted with permission from the author.
Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) who has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent consultant. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc.