We can only dream about how different the outlook for GMO foods would be today if the world’s first extensive experience with the technology had been a product like golden rice, engineered specifically to address a critical malnutrition problem, vitamin A deficiency, that blinds hundreds of thousands of children every year in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s no coincidence that golden rice, which has been tragically caught up in the larger uproar over GMOs, was developed not by a private corporation, but by foundation-funded academic researchers and a nonprofit organization supported by governments and philanthropies. (To be fair, Monsanto assisted by giving the rice’s developers royalty-free licenses to use some of its patent-protected processes, and its charitable arm has helped to support several of the independent nonprofits.)
It’s long past time, then, for those of us who see ourselves as environmentalists and technologists to start making some crucial distinctions—and to broadcast those distinctions loudly and proudly. What’s good for Monsanto, DuPont or Syngenta is not necessarily what’s good for human health and the environment. Just as environmentalists shouldn’t worry about propping up pitchmen like Mercola, biotech supporters needn’t concern themselves with corporate bottom lines.
In that spirit, the recent editorial from the Scientific American board of editors opposing mandatory labeling of GMO foods was disappointing because it was, in my view, another missed opportunity to start laying down some much clearer lines of demarcation.
Although I reluctantly agree with the editors that mandatory GMO labeling is bad policy, I’m certain that fighting disclosure is not where the scientific community should be putting its energy—especially because it’s very likely that North America will soon be swamped by the pro-labeling tide that has already swept across Europe, Asia and much of the rest of the world. Indeed, a recent New York Times poll indicates more than 90 percent of Americans already think that products containing GMOs should be labeled as such. It took a $46-million infusion of campaign cash from Monsanto, DuPont and other agribusiness giants to narrowly defeat a ballot initiative in California that would have imposed mandatory labeling. (Proponents spent just $9.2 million; Mercola was the largest contributor on their side.) But for anti-GMO forces, last year’s loss in California was just as good as a win because it has stoked a nationwide movement toward labeling that looks unstoppable to me. Washington State voters are up next; a statewide vote is set for November 5.
The editors of Scientific American rightly point out that mandatory label laws in Europe and Asia have hardly increased consumers’ knowledge. Instead, they have provided the absolutists with much more leverage in pressuring retailers to stop carrying any GMO products, thus reducing consumer choice and, in some cases, hurting the poor by raising prices. Yet consumers want labels because their food choices are, at least in part, expressions of their affinities, aspirations and fears. Producers of organic, kosher and other foods ought to be able to say so as long as their claims are subject to government verification. So should producers of food that is truly GMO-free. But the coercion of mandatory labeling ought to be reserved for information that is relevant to health, not GMO content, because government-sponsored assessments have repeatedly concluded that approved GMOs are at least as safe and nutritious as their conventionally bred counterparts. I say this even knowing that governments already require the disclosure of some information that has no direct impact on health, such as country of origin. They shouldn’t, but they do.