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Mandatory “GMO” Labeling Proposals Are Failing Despite Unprecedented Efforts and Expenditures

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Anti-GMO advocates assert that they are winning in their campaign to free the world of GMOs by pointing to the passage of labeling laws in a scant handful of states. To listen to them, it is only a matter of time before labeling is required everywhere, and from there it is a short step to the “market” demanding non-GMO food. Now that the dust has settled from all the activity of 2014, it is time to take stock and see where things stand.

Proponents did manage to get a law passed in Vermont in 2014. But if that was a “victory” it was Pyrrhic. As predicted, it was immediately challenged in court (by food companies, not, as opponents claim, by Monsanto), where it is likely doomed on multiple grounds. Earlier passage of similar bills in Connecticut and Maine require a trigger before they would come into effect, and that trigger—in essence, requiring New York to pass a mandatory labeling requirement—is unlikely to be met. Campaigns mounted in more than 30 states have been conspicuous by their (costly) failures, including expensive battles over the past decade in states like California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Mandatory labeling campaigns have been so unsuccessful that proponents are now shifting the battlefront to municipalities and counties —a clear demonstration of failure to ignite any broad scale movement, as recognized and lamented by even the most hardcore campaigners. But even there, the gains are unreliable. These facts on the ground give the lie to repeated claims that “98 percent of the population supports labeling!” When one looks beyond carefully set up push-polls, the data show that the vast majority of consumers are satisfied with existing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling policies when they understand them.

Of course, this consistent run of defeats does not mean labeling campaigns are going away any time soon. The easy shift from labeling campaigns to bans confirms what we have long understood, that labeling proponents aren’t really interested in labels. Their push for mandatory labels is but a means to an end in a guerilla marketing campaign aimed at scaring food companies away from selling foods derived through GMOs, and to get consumers to switch to higher-priced organics. Wherever these campaigns pop up, the money trail leads to a small handful of repeat donors coordinated in a well-orchestrated campaign. At that, they are having some success, but as Abraham Lincoln said, “…You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Proponents have advanced a number of arguments to justify the legislation they are pushing in State legislatures across the United States. They have claimed these arguments are based in science and experience. They are not. Arguments advanced in support of this legislation are either false, or fatally flawed. They have been put forward in denial of the fact that the objectives this legislation claims to advance are already a reality. And they have been advanced through an indefensible denial of the robust worldwide consensus on the safety of crops and foods improved through biotechnology.

Anti-biotech campaigners have claimed that this legislation is necessary to provide consumers with the ability to choose foods derived from crop varieties other than those improved through biotechnology. But consumers already have multiple means for exercising such freedom of choice: they can buy food labeled USDA organic, because that marketing program prohibits the intentional use of crops improved through biotechnology in organic production. food  certified as non GMO through at least eight private certifying schemes. They can even download a smartphone app with which to scan a product’s barcode in the grocery store aisle and determine whether or not it is a genetically improved food. Consumers’ freedom of choice is already today a concrete reality, available through multiple independent channels.

Biotech opponents have claimed that consumers have a “right to know” what is in their food, and that labels are required to inform them. But existing FDA policy already requires that any novel ingredient that may affect the health, safety, or nutritional value of a food must be identified on the label. Existing federal law requires all food placed on the market to be safe, with criminal penalties for violators. The assertions of biotech opponents also ignore the fact that consumers have a right to labels that are accurate, informative, and not misleading. These legal mandates are already in place, and they ensure that mandatory labeling legislation would fall to a legal challenge if adopted by any state.

In short, the claim, therefore, that labeling is needed to inform consumers of potential hazards is not only unfounded, but the opposite of the truth: the only safety differential ever reported between bioengineered and other foods shows the bioengineered foods to be safer.

But if protecting human health or the environment is not the objective for these anti-technology opponents, what is? As the driving figures behind the labeling campaigns have made clear, the real objective behind the campaign for mandatory labeling legislation is to falsely stigmatize foods derived from crops improved through biotechnology as a means of driving them from the market. Proponents of mandatory labels have on occasion been honest in acknowledging these objectives.

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Figure 1: Is Labeling Really About Our “Right to Know”?

And more recently, the Director of the Organic Consumers Association has admitted “mandatory labeling and bans, or GMO-free zones, should be seen as complementary, rather than contradictory.”

It takes very little digging to uncover the motivations behind this organized push for mandatory labeling: it is a fear-based marketing campaign aimed at expanding the market share for organic foods. And this is because these advocates simply distrust technological innovation per se, preferring Americans to live in an idyllic, simpler world that is “back to nature” but totally imaginary. The reality is that a world without GMOs will be a world with higher food prices for working American families. Perhaps labeling advocates can afford to pay higher prices for organic foods at upscale stores such as Whole Foods—which is and should be their right—but using State legislatures to force all Americans to follow this path (e.g., to spend much more for food) is elitist at its core.

In addition to the right to not be deceived or misled, consumers have a right to not be forced to pay more than they need to for food, leaving less money for health care, education and other needs. Compulsory labeling of “GMOs” would deprive them would deprive them of these rights.

A host of additional claims have been made to advance the mistaken notion that this legislation would meet a need. The facts contradict these claims at each and every turn. Mandatory labeling legislation would add nothing but confusion and costly chaos to the consumer choice and safety already provided under existing law and policy, and should be rejected.

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About the author

L. Val Giddings is a senior fellow at ITIF with three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He is also president and CEO of PrometheusAB, Inc., providing consulting services on biotechnology issues to governments, multilateral organizations, and industry clients. Before founding PrometheusAB, he served eight years as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a decade as a regulatory official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Giddings received his Ph.D. in genetics and evolutionary biology from the University of Hawaii in 1980.
  • Tom R

    Good post — couldn’t agree more that GM labeling law is a disguised attempt to ban and increase organic market share (while exempting their food, which all know contains traces of GM content when tested — which few do since the NOP does not require it — some retailers like Whole Foods Markets claim to test. As for the VT suit, they were also sued by the National Assn of Manufacturers, who see such laws as terrible precedent for any manufacturer (including package makers) who would have to create new product lines for one or two states. This is a patently illegal law.

    http://rt.com/usa/165860-vermont-gmo-labeling-lawsuit/

  • Siridatar Khalsa

    Yes, the agenda is to limit GMOs by labeling and hopefully change our system of farming from huge corporations using pesticides and herbicides and GMOs, to a more sustainable form of farming, such as organic or biodynamic farming. An excellent film to watch, One Man, One Cow, One Planet, is about how using biodynamic farming replenished soil that was destroyed in India by industrial farming. The myth that industrial farming is the only way to feed the “world’s hungry” is the propaganda of the 5 principal food corporations. The price of organics would go down if organic farming and small farmers were subsidized as much as the big food
    corporations. This author is apparently speaking for the interests of big corporations and not in the interest of humans, animals, plants, the ecosystems and the planet.

    One Man, One Cow, One Planet
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Y1xMauClzU&list=PLF5467D7906C0FE5A