Flash in the Pan 

More than a label

Since the narrow defeat last November of California's Prop 37, which would have mandated labeling of genetically modified foods, the sentiment behind the proposition has spread—or metastasized, depending on your perspective—into 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 we're not going to stop GMOs. And it's becoming clear that labels aren't going to be blocked forever, either. 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 that it makes sense 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 who support labeling is in the low-to-mid 90s. To dismiss such popular sentiment would be to ignore the will of the vast majority, which wouldn't be very democratic. It would in fact be a bit obnoxious, Naam writes.

"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 57 percent of shoppers would be less likely to buy products that are labeled GMO, suggesting a significant chunk of those who support labels aren't afraid to eat GMO foods. Other common reasons for 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, GM is more symbol than issue, just one part of the industrialized, monoculture-based food system that they don't wish to participate in.

Clearly, that 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 Prop 37, for example, by five-to-one. Corporate recusal is something that pro-GMO people 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.

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Many people who support labeling, or who oppose GMOs in their food, do so because they are uncomfortable with this powerful technology being forged in a corporate crucible, where there is a conflict between pleasing shareholders and proceeding with caution. It's the same reason many people are skeptical of petroleum company claims that drilling won't harm the environment. We're conditioned to expect the narrative that's best for business, whether it's true or not.

Big Biotech's history of unpopular moves, including farmer lawsuits, 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. (The industry recently its own forum on all things GMO, www.gmoanswers.com).

Concerns about corporate behavior and motivation can overshadow the examples of GM crops that don't exist in order 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 that are 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. But given that labeling seems inevitable, perhaps the pro-GMO side could help create a system that tells us something meaningful.

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 labels like, "Contains ingredients engineered to reduce pesticide use," or "Contains ingredients engineered to increase farm sustainability."

If the public lacks sufficient understanding of the science behind GMO foods, as many GMO supporters lament, maybe even more detail would be productive. Perhaps a GMO ID system is in order, under which the back label lists genetically engineered components by some kind of identification number, which consumers could look up. Then they could decide for themselves if they think a particular ingredient is insufficiently tested, potentially invasive environmentally, made by a big evil corporation or transgenic (made with DNA from a different species). And they could also consider whether a particular product requires less pesticide, or otherwise effects farm sustainability, or contains some desirable added nutrient value. 

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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