Inexact Change

Thoughts on science, politics, and social progress.

Something Is Missing From the GMO Labeling Debate

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In their September issue, the editors of Scientific American took a stand against the mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They claimed that “mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health.” Debates about labeling, they conclude, are therefore about “whether we will continue to develop an immensely beneficial technology or shun it based on unfounded fears.”

On the one hand, I think that the editors of Scientific American were right to argue that much more than a label is riding on the GMO labeling proposals that have cropped up in states across the country. As the editors point out, GMOs disappeared from European grocery shelves after compulsory labeling became law in the European Union. And there’s little question that many proponents of GMO labeling initiatives hope that labeling will force GMOs off the market. At a “teach-in” I attended last year sponsored by the campaign behind California’s GMO labeling initiative, UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri said that the campaign should have been working for a “GMO-free California” and his colleague Ignacio Chapela predicted that the passage of the proposition would be the “pin drop” that would spell the end of not only GMOs but industrial agriculture as a whole.

I certainly would not welcome this development. Like the SciAm editors, I believe that genetic engineering can have important benefits. Yet I also think that Scientific American opposes labeling for the wrong reasons, and that arguments such as theirs are bound to leave the scientific community looking hopelessly out of touch with the general public.

Proponents of GMO labeling have enjoyed considerable success in selling their cause as a “right to know.” They have argued that people have a right to know whether their food contains genetically engineered ingredients, and that the way to protect this right is to mandate special labeling of food products containing genetically engineered ingredients. This frame is widely accepted, and opponents of GMO labeling have tended to talk past the argument rather than challenge it.

Imagine for a moment (or perhaps you do not need to imagine) that you believe that GMO labeling is a “right to know” issue and that you were to read the Scientific American piece. How would you feel about that editorial? You believe that you have a right to know what you are eating, and then along comes Scientific American arguing that you should be denied that right because if you had that right, then you wouldn’t eat what they want you to eat. Biotechnology advocates might as well say, “Don’t give people their rights or they’ll use them.”

Like many biotech supporters, the editors emphasize that the weight of the scientific evidence shows that genetically engineered foods are “just as safe as other foods.” This is true, but as an argument against labeling genetically engineered foods, it’s woefully incomplete. Food labels are not only for warning consumers of safety threats. Typically, labeling requirements serve to protect consumer interests. Health is part of consumer interest, but consumers can have interests in other things, too. For example, consumers also take an interest in knowing how much food is in a package and what a food is made of, which is why packages are labeled with the mass of the contents and ingredients.

That is to say that science alone cannot tell us that a particular piece of information does not belong on food labels. A good reason to leave information off of labels would be that providing that information would impose a burden on somebody (probably either the producers or the consumers who do not care about that information) and that this burden would be too large to be justified by any benefit the label would bring.

In another direction, biotechnology advocate Ramez Naam makes the case that supporters of genetic engineering should embrace labeling. According to Naam, labeling GMOs would be “the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech” because it would prove that “there’s absolutely nothing to hide.” Naam takes the view that by fighting mandatory labeling, biotechnology advocates drive otherwise unconcerned bystanders to fear that “there must be something to hide.” He concludes that proponents of genetic engineering should take the lead in creating sensible labeling regulations.

Though Naam and Scientific American come to opposite conclusions, their arguments have something in common. Instead of considering questions of consumer choice, producer responsibility, and the role of government, they treat food labels as a tool for manipulating consumer behavior to bring about consumer acceptance of biotech crops. On the anti-GMO side, those same questions are typically reduced to buzzwords like “right to know” and “transparency.” The result is that these issues receive little substantive discussion.

As I see it, labels ought to be consumer-oriented. Information should be required or not based on its utility to consumers (and the burden imposed on anybody else), rather than what consumers will decide to do with the information or the motives of the people who advocate for a policy. The relevant questions are complicated and hinge on values as much as facts or science. While I can’t claim to have many answers, I don’t think they deserve be ignored.

This is the first in a seven part series on compulsory labeling of foods containing products of genetic engineering.

  1. Something is missing from the GMO labeling debate
  2. GMO labeling and consumer choice
  3. You don’t have a right to know what you’re eating
  4. In defense of opacity
  5. How strong is support for GMO labeling?
  6. Why mandate labeling?
  7. I don’t know whether GMO labeling should be required