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GMO labeling: what now?

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EVENTUAL REALITY With GMOs here to stay, it's time to ask what sort of labels should appear on packages.
  • EVENTUAL REALITY With GMOs here to stay, it's time to ask what sort of labels should appear on packages.

Since the narrow defeat last November of California's Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, the sentiment behind the proposition has spread to similarly conceived bills in 26 other states. Proponents of such laws mostly argue that we have a right to know what's in our food. However, it's probably fair to say that for many supporters, labeling would be a consolation prize in place of an outright ban on GMOs.

But GMOs are so well established in the United States, and they don't appear to be going anywhere. And based on the momentum of GMO labeling initiatives on the state level, as well as voluntary labeling programs by retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, it's looking increasingly like a matter of when, and not if, some kind of nationwide labeling system is created. So instead of fighting about whether or not we need them, it makes sense for both sides to sit down and talk about how labels should look.

In an April blog post for Discover magazine online, Ramez Naam argued for GMO food supporters to stop opposing labels: "I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there's absolutely nothing to hide."

According to most polls, the percentage of Americans that support labeling is in the low to mid 90s. To dismiss such popular sentiment would be to ignore the will of the vast majority. Naam further argues it could have counterintuitive side effects.

"At best, it's condescending to consumers, sending a signal that 'we know better than you what you should eat.'" By fighting GMO labeling, he argues, "we're persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide."

One recent ABC poll showed that 57 percent of shoppers would be less likely to buy products that are labeled GMO, suggesting that a significant chunk of those who support labels aren't afraid to eat GMO foods. Other common reasons for the support of labeling, according to polls, include opposition to GMOs for environmental reasons, the "right to know" and angst over corporate control of the food system. Polls may not ask it, but for many, genetic modification is more symbol than issue, just one part of the industrialized monoculture-based food system from which they wish to disengage.

Clearly, those 57 percent of GMO-fearing shoppers would represent a significant cut to the revenue of biotech corporations, and of corporate farmers who use GMO seeds, and it isn't clear to what extent they will be able to make up the difference by squeezing processors, retailers and consumers.

Such financial concerns are part of why Big Biotech shouldn't be a part of the labeling discussion: it has too much at stake, and wields undue influence—outspending the grassroots support of Proposition 37, for example, by five to one. Corporate recusal is something the pro-GMO contingent should get behind, too. Arguably, much of the grief felt by GMO supporters is inspired less by the technology itself than by the way it's been rolled out.

Big Biotech's history of unpopular moves, including lawsuits against farmers and a one-time opposition to voluntary GMO labels, has long posed a problem to GMO supporters, who often include a little Monsanto-bashing in their pro-GMO arguments as a means of communicating that Monsanto does not equal GMO. Perhaps these pundits would agree that it makes sense to exclude corporations from organizing and funding discussions about how labels should look.

Concerns about corporate behavior and motivation can overshadow the examples of GM crops that exist not to sell more pesticides or otherwise generate corporate revenue. The ringspot-resistant rainbow papaya, created at the University of Hawaii and Cornell University, was a public-sector effort that likely saved the state's papaya industry from being wiped out by the virus. Efforts like these are easier to support, and wholesale anti-GMO ideologues should be clear about what, specifically, they oppose. An honest discussion about labeling could help tease apart distinct issues often lumped together.

Critics of labeling frequently argue that a general label, along the lines of "Contains GMOs," communicates very little, because there are so many different kinds of GMOs. Perhaps the pro-GMO side could help create a system that tells us something meaningful.

Ramez Naam told me via email that he thinks GMO labels should be on products' back labels, not on the front, as might happen if GMO-food supporters don't come to the table. He also suggested how such labels might read—"Contains ingredients engineered to reduce pesticide use" or "Contains ingredients engineered to increase farm sustainability."

Given the apparent inevitability of labeling, a meaningful system should be the goal for advocates on both sides of the issue. Then, GMO skeptics could have their labels, GMO cheerleaders will have their nuance, and the will of the large majority of Americans will prevail. Doesn't that sound like how democracy should work?

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