Two years ago, voters in California narrowly defeated Proposition 37 , a ballot initiative that would have required labeling of most -- but not all -- genetically engineered foods (sometimes called bioengineered, genetically modified or GMO). Arguably the most important reason for Prop 37’s defeat was the fact that most newspapers in the state, including all but one major paper, editorialized against the measure. (The sole exception was the San Francisco Chronicle, which did not take a position.)
Anti-technology activists weren’t satisfied, however, so now they’re pushing a bill in the state legislature that would require what a majority of state voters rejected less than two years ago. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Times reprised its role in educating voters about GE food labeling, editorializing against the bill. The editorial is worth the read — and I’m not just saying that because it includes several of the points I’ve been making for years.
It begins by noting that “the scientific evidence on genetically engineered food, which has been around for two decades, indicates that it is as safe for human consumption as any other food.” And it notes that the “bill that would require the labeling of bioengineered food — whose DNA has been modified in the laboratory to introduce certain traits — caters to a scare campaign that is not based on solid evidence.”
The science doesn’t matter, say critics. Even if genetic engineering is safe, consumers have a right to know what is in their food. But as I’ve noted before, genetic engineering is not actually “in your food.” It is simply one of many tools we can use to raise crop yields, increase their nutritional value or protect them from pests or disease. To really know what’s in your food, you need to know what change was made, not how. Current US Food and Drug Administration policy requires producers to say on labels whether any meaningful changes have been made and, if so, what those changes are. So, in a very meaningful sense, the FDA’s existing policy is far better at telling consumers what’s in their food than slapping a “GMO” label on it possibly could.
According to the LA Times, “SB 1381 would require conspicuous yet imprecise labels notifying consumers that the food contains some genetically engineered ingredients, without making it clear what the engineering was meant to accomplish. … They would serve mainly to frighten grocery shoppers by implying that there is something wrong with the food, without making them better informed.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Perhaps just as important, the Times editorial recognizes the difference between what governments ought to require on food labels and the kinds of information consumers may want, but which is better left to the market to supply. “If a consumer has personal concerns about genetically modified food, there are other ways to avoid it. Trader Joe's, for example, has announced that food sold under its label contains no genetically engineered ingredients. There are apps and Internet sites to inform consumers about other foods. And companies that do not bioengineer their foods are certainly free to say so on their labels. But the science does not support mandatory labeling.”
Today, there are many thousands of affirmatively labeled, non-biotech foods available in stores as varied as Whole Foods Markets and Wal-Mart. From just 2000 to 2009, some 6,899 new food and beverage products were introduced in the United States with explicit non-biotech labeling. And groups ranging from Greenpeace to the Organic Consumers Association have created websites, print pocket guides, and even smart phone apps that direct purchasers to “biotech-” and “GM-free” products.
Neither consumers nor governments have a right to force producers to disclose information about their products that is irrelevant to health, safety, or some other important interest. Singling out one of the safest, and certainly the most heavily regulated, breeding method in order to stigmatize it simply does not qualify. It is also unnecessary because competitive market pressures have already created a vibrant and expanding market for voluntary labeling options that gives consumers the choice many seem to want.