GMOs: To Label or Not to Label

During the “Food Policy and Law” course that I took this summer, students were asked to write about the recent GMO-labeling ballot measures in California and Washington, which failed, as well as the laws that were passed by state legislators in Connecticut and Vermont. We were asked to compare and contrast the measures and indicate which is the better law and why. I’m posting my response in case it’s helpful to anyone in Oregon who is considering their vote in the upcoming election for a similar law. Please note I am not advocating for a particular vote!

One consideration I would add to what I wrote this summer is that a good share of the GMO products grown in the United States are not for human consumption–most corn is for fuel or animal feed; cotton is, obviously, for textiles. On the other hand, if you’re eating something non-organic with added sugar (i.e. nearly any processed food), soy, or canola oil, you can assume it’s GMO.

It’s difficult to compare VT/CT and WA/CA for two reasons: 1) Their agriculture economies are tiny vs. ginormous, respectively. 2) The former were legislative acts, and the latter were popular referenda. They have similar motives but very different implications.

In any case, the measures were all written similarly, with exemptions for alcohol, animals (via meat and milk) that are fed GMOs but not directly modified themselves, restaurant food, and certified organic food. All of the proposed measures use as their basis a “right to know” tack; that is, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, similar to the nutrition labeling that was promoted in the 1995 USDA video. There are all kinds of irony in this, as consumers also generally don’t understand how genetic engineering works nor how it compares to traditional cross-breeding (they are not the “sophisticated crowd” which Nina Federoff was addressing [2006]). The label would simply identify specific processed foods that contain some amount of ingredient that was a GMO.

Instead of seeking more information about GMOs, people operate under fear and perception of potential harm. At the same time, the companies that own GMO patents operate under secrecy and contempt for consumer concerns, and have prevailed (many claim) in these ballot measures due to outspending the pro-labeling efforts by remarkable margins—five times more in California (Voter’s Edge, 2012) and 2.6 times more in Washington State (BallotPedia, 2014).

An interesting difference in the laws is the market each state reaches: California sells primarily within the United States, providing nearly half the country’s produce (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2014); Washington exports most of its ag products to Asia (Washington State Dept. of Agriculture, 2014); Vermont has little agriculture outside of forestry and dairy products (Jeffords, 2010, p.5). So each has different motivations and nuances within their laws. The American Council on Science and Health notes the reason for Connecticut’s condition on its law (that it won’t go into effect until a critical mass of neighbors have also passed such a law) is to ensure at least a regional market for labeled goods (2013). I’m guessing they are also trying to avoid the lawsuits that Vermont seems to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, all of these laws miss the actual problems of genetic engineering: corporate proprietary control of the world’s food supply, and overuse of herbicides, which the corporations also own and sell to farmers. Many commodity farmers are basically lessors of their own operations, as they work under contract with seed/herbicide companies that dictate when and how much chemical to apply to their fields (CitizenWorks, n.d.). I find the crime in livestock-raising to be confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), not whether the animals are eating GMO feed. Because of this, I don’t feel that any of the laws is the better one. I feel they all, while well intentioned, miss the mark.

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