People Are Willing to Listen in the Fight Over GMOs

Polls consistently reveal overwhelming support for the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.  But, in two test states, California and most recently Washington, initiatives to require such labels have gone down in defeat when put to the voters.  

Supporters of the failed initiatives in Washington and California have vowed to fight on, and they are not alone.  Indeed, it appears the fight has just begun.  There are organizations in at least 37 states pushing for state-level ballot initiatives, and Connecticut and Maine have already passed mandatory labeling laws for genetically engineered foods, which will go into effect once other states nearby states pass similar laws.

The question is how the future labeling battles will play out

In states that allow initiatives, the California and Washington examples suggest that voters can be swayed away from supporting mandated labels.  For example, in what was pitted as a David versus Goliath battle, opponent of the Washington initiative raised a state record $22 million from the likes of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Monsanto.  Yet, the carpetbagger label could equally apply to supporters of the initiative, who raised $7.7 million, 70 percent of which came from out-of-state mostly from natural and organic associations and retailers.       

A cynical view is that massive advertising turned consumers into pawns of Big Food at the ballot box.  A more charitable interpretation is that reasonable people, when confronted with the evidence of the safety of genetically engineered food and the potential benefits, changed their minds about an unfamiliar technology.

Biotech companies and food manufacturers have shown that the public can be persuaded about the merits of labels at the polls.  The question is whether food companies are willing to continue to spend such sums state-after-state.  Indeed, General Mills which donated millions in the fight against mandatory labeling initiatives in California and Washington has come out in favor of a national labeling standard for products produced without genetically modified ingredients (but not necessarily mandatory labeling).  Such a call is an effort to head-off future, costly state initiative battles, but it is far from clear that such a standard will alleviate the concerns expressed by mandatory labeling advocates.

One of the key issues in the debate about mandatory labeling surrounds the potential cost that would arise should mandatory labeling become law.  The ultimate impact hinges critically on how food manufacturers and retailers choose to respond to a mandatory label.  There is some chance manufactures will simply add the label indicating the presence of genetically engineered ingredients, most consumers will ignore it, and life will go on as usual.  Ironically, this is the outcome that label supporters suggest will happen.  There is also a chance manufacturers will avoid the label for fear of losing customers, the entire production system eschews biotechnology, food prices go up, and farmers are less profitable.  This is the outcome feared by opponents of mandatory labels, yet the choice of how to respond is, at least partially, in the manufacturers’ and retailers’ hands. 

The focus thus far has been on government mandated labels.  But as the actions of General Mills suggests, more attention is been devoted to the impacts that food and biotech companies might have on attitudes toward biotechnology more generally.   

The willingness of food and biotechnology companies to donate millions to change minds about mandatory labels could also be spent changing minds about the technology.  Spending by food and biotech companies in the ballot fights, while creating temporary victories, might ultimately be counterproductive.  Fighting the label feeds conspiracy theories and suggests that there is something to hide. 

Why not spend money educating consumers?

To be clear, the food companies were right to oppose the initiatives.  One should be careful about when the government can compel company speech.  A case could be made that mandated labels are appropriate when there are legitimate safety or health risks, for example transfats or nut content.  But, the best science shows no such worries for biotechnology. Moreover, by requiring a label, the government might well send a false signal that biotechnology is something to fear.  

It has become no longer acceptable for reputable journalists to repeat the scare tactics of GMO fear mongers.  More nuanced critics point to issues associated with market power, resistance, and gene flow.  These are reasonable conversations worth having.  So too are the conversations about the benefits already accruing from the adoption of biotechnology, such as lower food prices and reduced insecticide use, not to mention promising developments on the horizon such as engineered citrus varieties resident to a disease that is destroying the industry in Florida, drought tolerant crops, and developing-country staple foods engineered to contain micronutrients.

Biotechnology is not a panacea, but all tools should be on the table to sustainably meet the demands of a fast growing, hungry world.         

For now, food companies are not required to add labels indicating the presence of genetically engineered ingredients.  But, it might ultimately be in their best interest to do it voluntarily, and in a way that avoids the negative connotations implied by the labels that would have been mandated in state ballot initiatives.

Some day in the near future, after concerted efforts to educate the public and create consumer-oriented biotechnologies, we may see food companies clamoring to voluntarily add a label that proclaims: proudly made with biotechnology.