The issue of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is currently under debate here in California. Unlike many of my vegan peers I’m opposed to this campaign to force labeling of GE foods. I have various problems with the idea both in theory and as it has been presented to the public but my primary objection is that passing such a law would be acquiescing to a scientifically unjustified demand by a political pressure group in addition to subverting the purpose and reasoning behind current food labeling law. It may also be a stepping stone to an outright ban, enough advocates have made their desires more than clear on the subject for it to be just a hidden possibility. For many activists it seems this is not an issue so much of giving consumers a choice but rather a way of forcing GMOs off the market. All this reminds me of another time a pseudoscientific pressure group pushed their own scientifically unjustified demand on the public in the form of an “innocuous” label.
When I went to high school in Georgia my biology textbook came with a warning label (pictured below). The label was the result of the efforts of a vocal group of Intelligent Design(ID) proponents who wished to use the label to instill false doubts in the minds of school children regarding the strength of the scientific case for evolution.
Proponents of Intelligent Design want “equal time” for their own idea of what passes for a scientific theory, in a similar way GMO labeling activists want their own food concerns to be given the same credence in labeling as other food concerns with scientifically established health implications, such as presence of allergens and nutritional content. While GMO labeling advocates campaign for their “right2know”, ID proponents like The Discovery Institute say “Students have a right to know” about intelligent design as well. The focus on genetical engineering, in exclusion to other forms of genetic modification such as hybridization, marker assisted selection, embryo rescue, and mutagenesis, is also scientifically unjustified and reminiscent of the focus of ID proponents on the perceived problems of evolution but not other scientific theories. Those who fought to have the sticker included in my biology book didn’t think it important to include phrasing skeptical of germ theory as well, yet it certainly has its many deniers in alt med circles, or a sticker in the Earth Science textbook stating, “Plate tectonics is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of continental drift and earthquakes.” We could go on and on creating parody stickers for many other “scientific controversies” out there such as heliocentrism or the age, shape, and solidity of the earth.
A tactic common to both creationism/ID proponents and GMO labeling activists is the use of sensational and misleading imagery that does not in anyway honestly represent evolution or genetic engineering. The most notorious example of this from the anti-evolution side is when Kirk Cameron presented the now famous “crocoduck” argument. That Cameron would even present such a photo as an argument seems to indicate he has no real grasp on evolutionary theory or that he is being intentionally hyperbolic and misleading. GMO labeling advocates similarly make constant use of pictures of animal-vegetable chimeras, non-GE produce falsely presented as being GMOs, and hypodermic needle imagery betraying their ignorance of the methodology behind genetic engineering and misleading about the nature and current state of genetically engineered food. Another common tactic is the use of polls and appeals to popularity to lend them an air of public support. Additionally the insistence of GMO labeling advocates that we should only eat “foods from nature” also seems to display about as much awareness of how modern foods were shaped as the Banana Man Ray Comfort.
Aside from the lack of any significant nutritional difference between current GE and non-GE crops, industry and some consumer advocates often argue that mandatory GMO labeling is undesirable because it may increase food costs. Requiring a label that reads “contains genetically engineered ingredients” for the benefit of those that wish to avoid GMOs may be unfair both to food producers and consumers without a concern about genetically engineered food if the added cost is borne by the producer and consumers of such GE foods. It should also be noted that there are conflicting studies on the question of how much mandatory labeling would increase costs and whether such labels would have a significant impact on consumer habits, so it is by no means a slam dunk argument nor I think the appropriate one to be making. On the other hand simply allowing a product to be labeled as “not produced using biotechnology” or “not made with genetically engineered ingredients”, within certain guidelines, puts any added burden on those that choose to seek out such foods or companies wishing to cash in on unfounded fears surround genetically engineered food. Consider Kosher or Halal labeling, should those who have no concern for Kosher or Halal guidelines be forced to pay any added cost of a nationally imposed labeling system?
This brings to mind the issue of labeling in regards to animal products. I’m well acquainted with the frustrations of trying to avoid animal products in a society in which consumption of animals is taken for granted. I’ve read countless food packages, Ive called and emailed many companies, I used to walk around with a copy of Animal Ingredients A to Z in my bag, Ive abstained when I just wasn’t sure, but among all this what I’ve never done is demand that the government require a label clearly denoting the presence of animal products. Does it make sense in the context of food labeling law? Not really. Would such label even be desirable? Perhaps, though perhaps not. No doubt numerous vegetarians and vegans have expressed their desire for such labels and I would find them convenient but I foresee issues as well. Would it be a pragmatic use of energy and resources? I doubt it. Perhaps in the future I shall explore this tangent in more depth.
When GMO labeling advocates make claims that they are having “GMOs shoved down” their throat and that they are being “forced” and “lied to” they are just playing the (lazy) victim. Failing to make an effort to inform oneself about the foods they are buying is neither an outside imposition of force nor deception. As noted by Steve Savage “GMO food is actually already labeled if you know a few rules“. Vegans can read ingredient labels and call the company to ask about questionable ingredients that may come from multiple sources such as lecithin or monoglycerides, Non-GMO eaters can read ingredient labels and call the company to ask about sourcing of questionable ingredients such as soy or maltodextrin. Non-GMO folks have also learned a few quick tricks for avoiding GMOs such as looking for an organic label, similarly vegans have their own quick tricks to help avoid animal products such as checking for cholesterol or looking for a Parve label. There are many food companies which label their food as “vegan” themselves or who use third party vegan certification labels which can help in making quick choices in the store. Similarly there are many companies which are choosing to proudly label their food as “Non-GMO” and many who are getting third party certification through organizations such as the Non-GMO Project. In the end vegans tend to get by just fine avoiding animal products, I see no reason why those with fears of GMOs can not do the same.
Science: What’s it up to? by Karl Haro von Mogel
What’s in a label? by Anastasia Bodnar
Ethics of Labeling by Anastasia Bodnar
To Label or Not to Label by Pamela Ronald
Obama will (probably) not label GE foods by Karl Haro von Mogel
GMO Food Is Actually Already Labeled If You Know A Few Rules by Steve Savage
The Right to Know: Why GMO Labeling Law Isn’t So Black and White by Rob Hebert