Adding Imaginary Value to Food Labels

In a recent AP-GfK poll, 66% of Americans want food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labelled as such. Only 7% oppose the labeling. Plant and animal breeding that selects some attributes and suppresses others has been in use for about 14,000 years. Intentional alteration of the DNA within a cell (resulting in a GMO) has been practiced since the early 1970s.  Management of plant and animal DNA is certainly not new.

GMOs have been used in food to improve crop volume and quality, or resistance to disease and pests.  They are also used to create pharmaceuticals and biological medicines.  Large agribusinesses are the usual sources of seeds resulting from genetic manipulation. The GMO farm crops for use by consumers or by food processors are subject to Food and Drug Administration regulation. Little regulatory action has been taken because there is no strong scientific evidence of consumer harm from these crops.  There is, however abundant paranoia and opposition to GMOs.

Ballot initiatives have been tried in CA, CO, CT, MA, ME, OR, VT and WA to require labeling of food from GMO crops. The VT effort succeeded and labeling is required starting in mid-2016. Maine and Connecticut require labeling once adjacent states require GM labeling. It seems that ballot initiative language was subject to misunderstanding – the answer you get depends on how you ask the question.

The AP-GfK poll showed bipartisan support, with 71 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans favoring labeling. In a Congressional hearing, elected officials seem opposed to labeling due to the lack of harmful effects and the strong potential that labeling would wrongly suggest that GMOs are dangerous.

The poll did not uncover specifics that the public wanted in GMO labeling, and indeed specifics are elusive. A lot of food packaging real estate is chewed up with mandatory nutrition assertions. Adding a simple attribute, such as a yes or no on GMOs, would lead to deceptive results. As NPR found, foods such as Canola oil can originate from a GMO food yet contain zero DNA, i.e. none of the targeted substance. A “yes or no” would still need a wordy explanation to acquaint consumers with the relevant truth.

Science-oriented GMO labeling will not satisfy some of its strident advocates because the anti-GMO agenda is usually muddled with other agendas and dark fantasies. Some slyly link GMO to Morgellons disease, a mysterious ugly cluster of skin conditions. Some say flu shots and vaccines contain GMO elements, and irresponsibly catapult from there to hinting that GMO causes Autism. Some tie GMO to cancer using flawed “scientific studies.”

One study that has an element of warning was on Neonicotinoids (aka neonics). Neonics are highly effective insecticides often applied to plants and seeds before planting. GMO seeds on occasion have a neonics coating. In the anti-GMO world, neonic damage is conflated with GMO damage, and that allows opponents to wrongly connect GMO and beehive colony collapse.

Most anti-GMO advocates seem wildly hostile to large agribusiness. Little of the anti-GMO animus will evaporate as a result of GMO labeling, and as Congress foresaw, labeling will probably be treated as official evidence of danger – why else would it need a label? Agribusiness needs to mount a persistent and cogent campaign teaching real science to counteract the mountain of ignorance being shoveled higher each year.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research