Europeans have been doing it since 1997. The Chinese saw fit to do it in 2004. And over a billion Indians will start doing it this January. Meanwhile about 95 percent of Americans want to do it at any given time — but can’t. And, as with many past liberation movements, the Americans who get to do it first may very well be in California.
Of course, I’m talking about labeling genetically modified foods (GMOs). This is a timely topic because a GMO labeling proposition called “The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” has officially qualified for the November ballot in California. While it’s true that the California legislature has killed several earlier attempts to pass a GMO labeling law (as also happened in Washington, Connecticut, and Vermont), this version will be put directly in front of voters. And as Richard Schiffman, writing for the U.K. Guardian, observes, that matters. His post reads:
What makes the referendum in California different is that, for the first time, voters and not politicians will be the ones to decide. And this has the food industry worried. Understandably so, since only one in four Americans is convinced that GMOs are “basically safe,” according to a survey conducted by the Mellman Group, and a big majority wants food containing GMOs to be labeled.
This is one of the few issues in America today that enjoys broad bipartisan support: 89 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats want genetically altered foods to be labeled, as they already are in 40 European nations, as well as Brazil and China.
Of course, when Big Food gets nervous, it opens up its collective wallet. And that’s exactly what’s expected in California. Schiffman points to a blog post by referendum organizing group California Right to Know that estimates food companies and their allies will spend upwards of $100 million trying to defeat the ballot initiative. The battle has also already been joined with two carefully named, industry-backed “astroturf” groups leading the charge, the Coalition Opposed to the Costly Food Labeling Proposition and California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
Much of the reporting on the issue has focused on the consumer “right to know” aspect of the law — after all, it’s built into the name of the bill itself. Indeed, when the debate over GMOs is covered by the media, it’s often from the perspective of a scientific “consensus” that GMOs are safe while consumers are needlessly concerned. It’s an easy stance to take as long as you ignore the paucity of independent research on these foods and the limits biotech companies put on researchers who want access to their seeds.
Some coverage — like this piece on Slate — claims the so-called death of the “Frankenfood” debate and puts a spotlight on Europe. However, the recent E.U. decision rejecting a French ban on a particular strain of GMO corn that prompted the post is in fact a decision upholding a French court’s ruling on the ban from over a year ago. And the second grand development cited is the failure of an ill-considered anti-GMO activists’ plan to destroy an experimental GMO wheat plot in the U.K. To my mind, these don’t exactly add up to a pro-GMO movement.
If there’s a cooling in Europe on GMO issues, it’s likely because European consumers have for years now had the ability to easily identify foods with genetically modified ingredients. Because they’re labeled!
I was more distressed to see Slate repeat various pro-biotech myths — such as the idea that an adoption of GMO crops has led to a reduction in pesticide use — and cite out-of-date studies like this one by biotech industry consultants to back up the claim.
These anti-anti-Frankenfood analyses also tend to downplay the risks of GMOs to other farmers. But in California, that argument matters. Organic agriculture is big business in the Golden State — it’s got the most certified organic acreage in the entire country with sales worth well over $1 billion annually. Organic growers cannot by law use genetically modified ingredients — the presence of GM residue above a certain level will cause farms to lose their organic certification — but not all consumers are aware of that fact.
Since most processed conventional foods contain ingredients derived from GMO corn or soy, a labeling requirement would make the contrast between conventional and organic products all the more noticeable. So when consumers start avoiding the “contains GMOs” label, organic sales are very likely to go up.
And the labeling law will help farmers in other ways. It may, for example, help California’s agricultural exports, since many of our large exports partners either require labeling of GMOs or won’t buy them at all.
Labeling might even indirectly reduce the risk of contamination of other crops by GMO cross-pollination — a phenomenon that has been seen in everything from GMO canola to corn to alfalfa. Organic crops become worthless once genetically contaminated. Labels could force Big Ag to face the fact that it’s making something millions of Americans just don’t want. And that may cause farmers to plant fewer acres of GMO crops — thereby lessening the risk to their organic neighbors.
In short, while the food industry wants Californians to think GMO labeling will have a major negative economic effect through “frivolous lawsuits” and “increased food prices,” the effort seems more likely to do the opposite, by improving the economics of one of the state’s most important industries.
If there is real worry in the hearts of Big Food executives, it’s because they know that what happens in California rarely stays in California. Yes, this initiative may cause a wave of GMO labeling laws and referenda to ripple across the country.
But it may be even simpler. The packaging that food companies use in California — by far the most populous state in the country and thus the largest market — will likely be the packaging they’ll use elsewhere. So labeling for California might, just like that, turn into labeling for the rest of us. All in all, it’s a pretty neat trick.