This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been “genetically modified (GM)” should come with a special GM label. Proponents of proposition 37, or the “Right to Know” initiative, argue that “in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,” i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?
First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to “nudge” consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to “nudge” people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory labels do the same thing. Cigarette labels do not exist to inform people that smoking leads to lung cancer—everyone knows that—they exist to nudge a consumer to think twice before purchasing a pack. The same thing goes for other mandatory labels such as Trans fat.
The question becomes, what makes an ingredient or food processing method warrant a label? Obviously, there are many examples of products that are sold without detailed consumer information. Take generic brands. Beyond knowing a product is “canned tuna” or “diced tomatoes” consumers know little about the producing company or their method of production, yet we readily allow such products because they are cheaper and we are ensured that generics undergo the same health and safety requirements as name brands. Additional identifiers on generic goods add nothing to informed decision making so we do not require them. Therefore, arguing, “consumers have a right to know,” implies there is something about GMOs that make them more like Trans-fat than generic canned tuna. So what is the distinction?
The regulatory litmus test for mandatory labeling in the United States is the health impact of an ingredient. Nutritional content labeling helps consumers evaluate, for example, the number of calories and vitamins in a product while more explicit labels help consumers avoid unhealthy ingredients. Labels containing such useful, accurate information are required by law. Under the current regulatory framework, in order to justify a GMO label, GMOs would need to have different health or nutrition implications for humans than that of conventionally grown food.
While there are many ethical debates surrounding GMOs, one corner of the debate that science rightfully owns is whether or not GMOs have a unique health portfolio. The evidence clearly shows they do not. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A recent study examined the past 50 years’ worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.” The WHO states, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” And in a literature review for congress, the GAO writes, “To date, GM foods have proven to be no different from their conventional counterparts with respect to nutrients, allergens, or toxicity.”
If GMOs do not differ from conventional foods in terms of nutrition then why the call for a label? In part it’s because of a public misunderstanding that genetic engineering is creating unprecedented and novel organisms. As my colleague Val Giddings has noted, genetic manipulation is commonplace throughout the food system by conventional and organic farmers. What separates traditional transgenic methods from genetic engineering is the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology—a laboratory method of coordinating genetic material from multiple sources—to confer beneficial traits to an organism. rDNA technologies are unique in that scientists can target one specific gene and monitor its impact on an organism, unlike traditional hybridization that blends two organisms in a completely unpredictable and largely uncontrollable grab-bag process.
The vast preponderance of scientists agree that using GE rDNA techniques actually reduces the risk of surprises or undesirable results compared to traditional methods because through rDNA one can actually see the genetic effects of a foreign gene, while traditional methods are only able to observe the phenotype implications (what a plant looks like). If there are unexpected genetic mutations rDNA techniques will spot them while the methods pursued by conventional and organic farmers may not. Cellular biologist Dr. Kevin Folta hits the point home: “We’ve been mixing hybrids where 50,000 genes mix with 50,000 genes, and we don’t have any idea what those genes are doing. Yet that’s perfectly acceptable. But if you add one gene of known function that you can trace, and you know what it does, and you know what it encodes, somehow that’s causing controversy. That’s a real paradox to scientists who study this area.”
To give a concrete example, some crops such as potato and tomato naturally produce various steroidal glycoalkaloids. These substances are toxic not only to humans, but also to insects and pathogenic fungi. During the course of traditional plant breeding, breeding lines with increased levels of glycoalkaloids may be identified by the breeder as showing superior insect or disease resistance and retained for possible commercial release. The elevation of glycoalkaloid levels responsible for the pest tolerance may not be noted until people become ill from consuming the foods. [V1] This is a particular concern for organic farmers who need to extract as much natural insect resistance as they can from a crop. One might also add to this concern that the United States is one of only a few developed countries to not regulate new crop varieties developed from traditional hybridization techniques (although there are advisory guidelines for compounds such as glycoalkaloids, they are not mandated).
Regardless of the evidence and potential health benefits of GE methods, opponents still argue that something could go wrong—a gene could be placed wrong, or an unintended consequence, at some point, could emerge. That’s true something could happen. There are risks anytime a new technology is employed. Scientists argue those risks are extraordinarily low given the accuracy of rDNA techniques, but consumers have every right to make their own risk assessment and purchase foods labeled non-GE or organic. What activists do not have the right to do is to impose their fact-free policy prejudices on everyone else. Particularly when the legislative vehicle to do so is a label that is actually designed to lead consumers incorrectly to believe there are proven health consequences of GMOs (if they weren’t why would a label exist, one might ask).
This is the fundamental reason why Prop 37 should be defeated: advocates want a label that is false and misleading, that paints the majority of foods (eighty to ninety percent of food currently has some GE ingredient) as unsafe, not based on science but on ideological prejudices of possible risk. These individuals believe the risk of something going wrong justifies the costs of more expensive organic food. Fine, but for the rest of California consumers—particularly poor consumers— who, because of a label, are falsely lead to believe they are making healthy decisions for their families by spending more on organic or non-GE food, such a label is disingenuous and misleading. California currently has six million households below the poverty line—more than the entire population of Finland. According to one assessment, organic food is between 39 and 200 percent more expensive than conventional food. If anti-GMO advocates want to convince consumers and voters of their beliefs they have many legitimate ways of doing so. Creating a label that in effect pushes more expensive food onto consumers under the guise of consumer free choice is unethical.
Advocates respond to this claim by noting that the vast majority of people support a label. But of course people do. Is it hard to believe when asked, “Do you support labeling of GE food?” most people say “yes”? Why wouldn’t they? If asked if they support labeling of products that have been transported over twenty miles, or had been exposed to pesticides or grew on a “factory farm” most consumers would probably agree as well. However, Marchant, Cardineau, and Redick show in their book on GMO labeling that when the predicted cost of labeling is included in the questions, consumers overwhelmingly reject mandatory labels. More importantly, the reason so many consumers support labeling is because believe GMOs are harmful. Responsible public policy should not promote this misconception but try to correct it. When cigarette labels were first debated most consumers believed they were unnecessary because people did not understand the health consequences of smoking. Science was further along than public opinion. Similarly, with GMOs, science is ahead of public opinion.
Consumers, activists, and politicians continue to debate ethical food choices from GMOs, to organic, to the use of pesticides. These debates are largely healthy and reflect a society trying to increase moral food consumption. But a label represents a bright line that a product has health consequences and nudges consumers to change behavior. GMOs have no such consequences. Implicitly suggesting otherwise through a label further exacerbates the gulf between public opinion and science and unnecessarily pushes consumers to more expensive products. The best option for California consumers is to defeat Prop 37 in November.