This election season, there are initiatives on the ballot in Colorado and Oregon to label foods made with the help of genetic engineering, and there are legislative efforts to do the same in dozens of other states. I like the idea of GMO labeling, though for unorthodox reasons. But I do mourn all of the money, more money, effort, and political bandwidth that this issue is sponging up.
Most people I know who would like to label GMOs aren’t fixated on the biotechnology. The things they really care about are the amounts of pesticides we’re spraying, or the role of agribusiness in American farming, or some other larger issue that’s not limited to genetic engineering. The problem is that labeling GMOs is an ineffectual way of getting at most of these problems, and could make some of them worse.
Issue 1: Too much technology in my food
Labeling would make it easier for people to opt out of buying GMOs (remember, you can already do that by buying organic), but we’d still be eating all sorts of newfangled stuff. All of the debate over GMOs has led seed corporations to turn back to the older technology of mutagenesis — creating new varieties by altering seeds with radiation or mutagenic chemicals — which is more likely to cause unintended effects than genetic engineering. And that’s just the handiest example. There are lots of other technological innovations going into food. If you’d like more testing, or a more precautionary attitude, a direct and holistic approach would work better. For instance, we could expand the FDA and have it do the testing — rather than letting businesses run their own tests. Focusing exclusively on GE gives riskier technologies a pass.
Issue 2: Pesticides
Herbicide-resistant GMO seeds are responsible for a massive increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate — and other herbicides may follow suit. GMO plants engineered to ward off insects, however, have had the opposite effect: They’ve led to a big reduction in insecticides sprayed. Now some farmers are spraying more again because corn worms have evolved resistance to the GMOs, but we are still way below the insecticide use of the bad-old days before genetic engineering.
If we really want to do something about pesticides, a better approach might be to tax them depending on their toxicity and potential for environmental damage. We could use that money to push good integrated pest management systems. And we could help farmers set up positive incentives, or self-policing organizations, so that they’re not all racing to use up the cheapest chemical before it goes obsolete.
Issue 3: Corporate control
A lot of people who vote for GMO labels will really be trying to vote against Big Ag. It won’t work. Sure, prices will go up a little bit, as agribusiness revamps to create separate supply chains, but they won’t go up as high as the prices the small Jeffersonian farmer needs to charge to stay competitive — not even close. Even if we completely rejected GMOs, the agribusiness conglomerates would remain intact. And agriculture isn’t the biggest problem out there — the oil industry, for example, is much more consolidated. Exxon is 10 times bigger than Monsanto. If corporate consolidation is the problem, a solution might be beefing up our anti-trust rules.
Issue 4: Patents
You can patent GMOs. You can also patent plant varieties developed through traditional breeding. You can also patent rectangles with rounded corners, as Apple has done. Clearly the patent law is deeply in need of reform. But refusing to buy GMOs will do about as much to achieve that goal as refusing to buy iPhones.
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I just worry that we are being suckered. I don’t buy the idea that if we throw lots of information — in the form of labels — on our products, we’ll be able to shop our way out of our problems. Rather than banking on this tenuous market solution, we could be addressing these issues directly.