Is GMO Labeling The Wrong Food Fight?

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After a spending blitz of $22 million by processed food and biotech companies, a ballot initiative to label foods with genetically modified ingredients in Washington officially failed this week. The proposal had started out with overwhelming public support, but plummeted as money poured in from the opposition.

Post-election, the outlook for GMO labeling is grim. Washington now goes the way of California, which failed to pass a GMO labeling law last year after industry giants spent $46 million to kill once-strong support. A couple state legislatures have passed labeling laws, but they won’t go into effect unless other states sign on. Anti-GMO advocates are looking forward to a possible ballot initiative in Oregon and encouraging the 20 or so statehouses currently considering labeling laws. Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, an industry group caught illegally funneling money into the Washington fight, is now setting its sights on a federal ban that would kill all future state efforts to require GMO labels.

The power of labeling rests in “the right to know,” a mantra that reverberated across Washington televisions these past few months. Individual choice clearly resonates with the 93 percent of Americans who support labeling. The industry’s bellicose response to each new initiative has done nothing to quell the public’s suspicion.

On a larger scale, some advocates and organic food groups hope that labels will expose how little of a choice there currently is. An estimated 70 percent of all products in a grocery store contain GMOs and are controlled by a handful of companies, including the much-maligned Monsanto. Labels may inspire consumers to shift toward more sustainably produced organic or local food.

“There are strong reasons to believe that GMO crops are inconsistent with building long-term sustainable agriculture,” Michael Lipsky of public policy organization Demos wrote in the Huffington Post. “Labeling would allow consumers to register their views on the environmental consequences of GMO foods in the marketplace.”

“My personal concern about GMOs is corporate control of the food supply,” leading food policy expert Marion Nestle told ThinkProgress in an email. “I don’t think it’s good for American democracy to have one corporation in charge of such a large proportion of the food supply.”

But after two defeats, should anti-GMO advocates continue to make labeling laws their primary goal? Setting aside the not-negligible amount of outside money, labeling’s impacts on the American food system may be relatively modest. The research is murky on whether or not labeling actually affects shoppers’ choices.

Nestle believes that consumers should have the basic right to choose whether they want to avoid GMO products or not. However, she says it’s too late for even a national labeling law to spur a large-scale food system shift. “Today, roughly 90% of corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets are GMO. But what about fruits and vegetables in the produce aisles of supermarkets? Some GMO varieties have been approved by FDA. But are they there? Who knows? I certainly don’t.”

If a more sustainable food system is the eventual goal of the anti-GMO movement, labeling laws can only go so far. Rather than initiate the change with consumers at the grocery store, true reform must start long before products hit the shelves.

Non-GMO foods, after all, do exist. Organic foods cannot contain GMOs, and biotech companies have for the most part stayed away from genetically engineering fruits and vegetables (with the prominent exception of Monsanto’s new controversial sweet corn), preferring to focus on corn, alfalfa, soy, and sugar beets that must be refined into animal feed and sweeteners.

But under the current system, non-GM options are more expensive for food companies and consumers. The cost of planting and growing organic produce can actually be cheaper than GM crops, as GM seeds and pesticides cost farmers much more at the outset. But because organic food is currently a niche market, prices for consumers remain high. It certainly doesn’t help that fruits, vegetables, and organic produce receive a fraction of the government subsidies that have exploded the production of corn and soy, 90 percent of which is genetically modified.

The Farm Bill, which lawmakers have stalled on for the past year, could help swing the balance to non-GM producers. For example, tax incentives for start-up farmers, small farms, and operations that diversify crops would help break up the monocultures of corn and soy that have made GM technology so desirable. Hundreds of acres of genetically identical crops, while favored by the current market, are a playground for pests and blight. Working in these conditions, many farmers are willing to pay a premium for GM seeds that promise to withstand heavier doses of herbicides or repel pests themselves. Diversifying crops makes it much harder for pests and pathogens to spread, but farmers have little financial incentive to embrace that system.

Decades of monoculture have also leeched nutrients out of the soil in much of the Midwest and reduced the land’s ability to maintain moisture. Biotech’s solution is to create drought-resistant seeds, rather than employ basic planting practices (like crop rotation, cover crops, and no-till agriculture) that characterize organic farming.

The Farm Bill could also privilege increasingly popular initiatives like community-supported agriculture and gardens in so-called “food deserts,” where people can’t afford non-GM products even if they are labeled clearly. Studies show extra money for food stamp recipients to buy fruits and vegetables can also shift consumers’ choices at the grocery store.

These policies might seem even less politically viable at the moment than GMO labels — particularly in light of Monsanto’s considerable influence over the USDA and Congress. But if the burgeoning food movement can look beyond labels, shoppers might have more than the right to choose — they might actually have a choice.