Advocates for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) argue that Americans overwhelmingly support such a policy. Indeed, the text of California’s Proposition 37, a failed GMO labeling initiative, claimed stated that “Polls consistently show that more than 90 percent of the public want to know if their food was produced using genetic engineering.” And biotechnology proponent Ramez Naam points to a pair of polls pegging support for GMO labeling at 93% and 82%.
These polls aren’t meaningless, but they should be understood with a few caveats. First, it’s also worth considering that the people who believe that GMOs should be labeled may not intend to make use of labeling if it is implemented. Since one of the main arguments in favor of labeling has been that consumers have a “right to know,” some people may support labeling just because they believe that people who want the information should have it, even if they would not consider it in their own personal purchasing decisions.1 If you wanted to know how many people would actually use the information, then you should look for polls that ask people if they would use the information provided by mandatory GMO labeling.2
Moreover, with such strong support for GMO labeling, it’s striking that voters in California and Washington have recently rejected ballot initiatives that would have required labeling of GMOs. It’s not that the failure of California’s Proposition 37 and Washington’s Initiative 522 discredits the polls on GMO labeling. After all, there’s no denying the role of money in the election. Both of these initiatives enjoyed overwhelming support in early polls, but lost steam in the weeks just before the election as industry poured millions of dollars into a campaign which pumped out a relentless stream of ads to defeat the initiative.
Even so, it’s worth considering what the defeat of Proposition 37 and I-522 might say about public opinion on the GMO labeling issue. At very least, it might tell us something about the nature of voters’ support for labeling. It seems likely that many of the people who turned against Proposition 37 after seeing advertisements were less informed voters who did not have strong feelings about labeling genetically engineered foods. This doesn’t mean that that these people’s opinions don’t matter. The point is that when public opinion is so fluid, it would be overly simplistic to say that the polls represent the will of the people but the election result only speaks for big corporations.
That is to say that while opinion polls do tell us something about consumer attitudes toward GMO labeling, they’re not the only source of information about the issue. Election results also tell us something about people’s attitudes toward GMO labels. And there’s something else to be learned from people’s willingness to buy unlabeled foods when non-GMO labeled foods are available.
I’m going to dodge the question in the title of this post because I’m not sure it’s useful. If we’re going to set policy based on popular opinion, shouldn’t we have an informed conversation about the issue first? That would mean moving beyond the current stalemate of “science” versus “right to know.” It would mean talking about the science, but also about how commodity chains work and why a label entails more than ink, about consumer choice and producer responsibility, and about the role of government in regulating the market. I suspect that if the public were more informed about these issues, then the gap between opinion polls and election results would be much smaller.
Of course, elevating the conversation on these issues is easier said than done. But I think it’s worth pointing out that we hire government representatives to make these decisions for us so that everybody doesn’t have to ponder the nuances of complex issues like this one. It doesn’t work perfectly by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d rather work on improving that system than giving up on it and expecting individuals to pick up the slack. Given such an arrangement, we should expect that even if the system is working well, public opinion will not always align with government policy. When Mitt Romney briefly took the lead over Barack Obama in national polls last fall, he wasn’t immediately installed as president, and nobody denounced this as undemocratic. We have procedures for changing things in government and there are reasons we don’t have our government make all decisions by polls. So I find it hard to get upset about GMOs continuing to go unlabeled even as when there are polls showing that people support labeling.
This is the fifth in a seven part series on compulsory labeling of foods containing products of genetic engineering.
- Something is missing from the GMO labeling debate
- GMO labeling and consumer choice
- You don’t have a right to know what you’re eating
- In defense of opacity
- How strong is support for GMO labeling?
- Why mandate labeling?
- I don’t know whether GMO labeling should be required
I mention this distinction because if we want to know just how strong the consumer interest in labeling is, the number of people who will use the information is more relevant than the number of people who support labeling.↩
In fact, one of the polls Naam cited also reported that 57% of respondents would be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically engineered, which is a majority, but far less than the 93% who expressed support for labeling.↩