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 V.22 No.40 | October 3 - 9, 2013 

Flash in the Pan

GMO Labeling

A Democratic path forward

Should they be labeled?
Should they be labeled?

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 into similarly conceived bills in 26 other states. Proponents of labeling laws mostly argue that the public has 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 here to stay. 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 be implemented.

According to polls appearing on ABC News ,and the New York Times, 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 obnoxious.

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, genetic modification is more symbol than issue, just one part of the industrialized, monoculture-based food system that they don't wish to participate in.

One recent ABC poll showed 57 percent of shoppers would be less likely to buy products that are labeled GMO. 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.

But GMOs are here to stay. 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 be implemented.

Such financial concerns illustrate why Big Biotech corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer 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 GMO supporters who believe that genetic modification could improve food overall 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 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. 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 weren’t created simply to 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 offers meaningful information.

In an April blog post for Discover Magazine online, technology cheerleader 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."

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 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 the possible benefits like whether a particular product requires less pesticide, positively affects 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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