Food labeling initiatives that were originally meant to take GMOs down a peg bother biotechnology advocates, but the debate may be what pushed consumers to better understand a complicated issue.
By James McWilliams
A demonstration against GMOs at a farm in Long Marsden in Warwickshire, England. (Photo: Sion Touhig/Getty Images)
Last month, VTDigger.com, a regional news source for all things Vermont-ish, reported that, with regard to the state’s decision to require labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs), “Dairy products derived from animals fed from genetically engineered food are … exempt.” But the article never explains why. This omission, I’d argue, suggests the complex reality beneath the seemingly simple anti/pro-GMO debate.
The well-publicized push to label products that contain GMOs — which 88 percent of scientists consider safe while only 37 percent of consumers do so — has had the unexpected advantage of revealing a more complete picture of the controversial biotechnology.
Consumers who have followed the labeling debate are now more likely to know that the majority of corn and soy fed to farm animals is GMO, that insulin made to treat diabetics is GMO, that scientists have engineered GMO mosquitoes to combat the Zika virus, and that — although VTDigger buried this tidbit — most cheese (90 percent) is made with GMO rennet (hence that weird exemption).
This suite of GMO facts might seem peripheral to public opinion. But I’d wager that it’s having an unexpected impact. The primary reason anti-labeling advocates typically oppose GMO labeling is not that GMOs have something sinister to hide. Instead, it’s that two decades of activist demonization of GMOs as “frankenfood” — all in contrast to the available evidence supporting GMO safety — is difficult to shake. As I noted in a recent column, the tyranny of consumer misconception thwarts even the most virtuous companies who endorse “right to know” transparency.
Still, it’s time for those who oppose labeling not only to acknowledge the looming inevitability of labeling laws (when nearly 90 percent of consumers want something they usually get it) but to celebrate how the long solidified opposition to GMOs is starting to soften, and even switch sides.
“I used to share in the natural distrust of food which had had its DNA ‘tampered with,” wrote one student, “but now I see that GMOs have so much promise.”
I have my own pet litmus test on this issue. For the past eight years I’ve been visiting a food studies seminar at an elite state university. In it, we discuss the science and politics of GMOs. My take on the issue, as covered in my book Just Food: When Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (which the students read) is the basis of our discussion. It’s characterized by cautious optimism for GMOs.
When I first visited the class in 2009, this position was fiercely unpopular. I was vilified. Undergraduates condemned my support of such an “unnatural” mechanism. Worse, the vilification reflected the position taken by sustainable agriculture advocates reviewing the book in media such as Grist. Supporting GMOs, as I learned, was a pretty quick way to be deemed “oblivious,” if not an outright “industry defender.” Not enjoyable.
But year after year I got back on the collegiate hot seat — and I’m glad I did. By 2012, unified student opposition started to crack. By 2014, it was 50/50. And now, as I learned last month, students were unanimous in their advocacy for GMOs.
Opinions — all expressed in written assessments and all in response to the same reading — ranged the gamut in terms of intensity of expression. But all 17 papers stressed that GMOs have a critical role to play in our globalizing food system. Point being: It’s hard to imagine anyone reading these responses from some of the country’s most discerning and well-informed undergraduates and worrying about the negative impacts of a GMO label.
“I used to share in the natural distrust of food which had had its DNA ‘tampered with,” wrote one student, “but now I see that GMOs have so much promise to be one part of the solution to world poverty and hunger.” Another explained how he’s “wary of letting GMOs completely dominate agriculture,” but ultimately believes “GMOs could definitely help address global food security.” A third noted that it was his food-obsessed mother “who rides the anti-GMO train,” but that he has since rebelled, coming to see GMOs as a way to combat “the looming effects of climate change.” Yet another declared, “I’m in full support of GMOs being used regularly.”
Many of these students even cautioned me for my caution. I should be more supportive, they suggested, of this powerful technology.
Such a collective endorsement not only represents a sharp deviation from the collective angst prevailing even a couple of years ago, when GMO skepticism based on inaccurate information still held sway, but the transition also reflects an upsurge in consumer awareness that has ironically emerged from a labeling initiative politically motivated to take GMOs down a peg.
Of course, it’s always possible that my little litmus test is meaningless, an anecdotal cover for a statistical quirk. But a week after I returned from my visit, I discovered an article by an inveterate opponent of GMOs — Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott — and felt further assured that those pro-GMO students foreshadowed an imminent shift in public opinion.
More than any other agricultural writer, Philpott has lambasted the evident evils of GMOs. At one point he suggested that GMO corn might cause tumors; at another he characterized biotech firms as engaged in a “carnival-game scheme.” He has reserved particular ire for Monsanto, a company that epitomizes the agribusiness of which he’s so critical.
But on April 20, you could find a photograph of Philpott on bended knee, opposite Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, also on bended knee, smiling together in the halls of Monsanto’s global research and development headquarters in suburban St. Louis. Beneath the picture was Philpott’s perfectly fair minded — one might say cautiously optimistic — article on Monsanto’s role in the future of food and agriculture. The piece mentioned the “fascinating conversation” he had with Fraley, a man whom he found “unfailingly friendly” as the two “joked about our common baldness.” I made sure the article’s date wasn’t April 1 and, incredulously, re-read the piece. No joke.
Critics of labeling continue to lament the GMO labeling initiative. As the Wall Street Journal recently claimed, it will “encourage baseless fears about scientific progress.” What this perspective overlooks, though, is the possibility that the conversational surge sparked by the labeling debates has pushed many consumers to better understand an issue that’s been dragged through sewers of misinformation.
Granted, the fact that 17 undergraduates at a fancy school all support GMOs, and that one of the nation’s leading anti-GMO journalists has traded in piss and vinegar for milk and honey when writing about Monsanto, might not seem like much. But I say it’s enough to conclude, for now, that we at least label GMOs and move on.