The push is on to require foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label. Last year, California missed passing a labeling proposition by a hair. A similar initiative failed again this year by just a fraction of a hair in Washington. In June, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law (although it remains ineffective until four other eastern states, one of them bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws). Nine days after Connecticut’s bill passed, Maine followed suit. Other states are clamoring.
Despite considerable push-back from the predictable corporate interests, including Monsanto and Dow, there’s every reason to believe that some form of GMO labeling is on the horizon. This development, for all of the controversy it generates, is probably a good thing for both producers and consumers. But not for the reasons one might assume.
The most common justification offered for labeling GMO ingredients is that consumers “have a right to know” what’s in our food. So pervasive is this explanation that the most conspicuous lobbying initiative for GMO labeling is called “Right to Know GMO.” The claim has become a catchphrase in the movement’s promotional rhetoric. The GMO Awareness organization explains how “it’s your right to know if it’s GMO.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame—condemn the corporate effort to prevent our “right to know.” Food Democracy Now! touts our “fundamental right to know” whether or not GMOs are in our food.
But do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food? The ring of empowerment behind the right to know justification is undeniable. But, on closer inspection, this is rights talk run amok. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we don’t necessarily have an inherent right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made. This is the case for many reasons.
As matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label.
Embracing a right is premised to some extent on the reasonable ability to achieve its fulfillment. Pragmatically speaking, the steps required to produce food today are too numerous, too complex, and too elusive to realistically satisfy the consumer’s right to know. This claim holds equally true for all methods and forms of agricultural production—local or global, organic or conventional, factory farm or Old MacDonald’s.
In a way, we sacrificed our right to know when we left the land. And even when we were on it, we still may not have had a right to know what was in our food for the practical reason that, again, knowing wasn’t remotely possible. In many cases, whatever right we may have to know is undermined by the fact that we often don’t even know what we might have a right to know.
Consider: Do we have a right to know how close a farm was to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Do we have a right to know if growers used conventional fertilizer that contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know how many pounds of legal herbicides were sprayed on our lettuce? Do we have a right to know how often food handlers washed their hands? Closer to the GMO mark, do we have a right to know what kind of hybrid corn was used to make our non-GMO tortillas?
All of these conditions directly influence the food we eat—some of them in ways that might impact health. And, yes, it’s conceivable that this level of detail might someday be included in a bar code that consumers could scan and read. But even so, as matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label, on the basis of a rhetorical appeal to rights.
If we agree that all the mundane details of agriculture do not belong on a label—even if only on practical grounds—why are we so insistent that GMOs are the one thing that absolutely must be called out on labels? (Other than the fact that they’ve been somewhat arbitrarily politicized?)
The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets. Let’s say a pastry chef warms his butter to a specific temperature before making his world famous tarte au citron. Consumers obviously do not have a right to know that temperature. Likewise, Coca-Cola, for it part, is under no obligation to reveal its secret formula to rights-obsessed soft drink aficionados. Brewers work with alchemistic creativity to blend hop varieties and achieve sublime flavor in their concoctions. Good luck trying to get your hands of their formulas. Advocates of that culinary philosophy known as terroir would recoil at the idea of Texas dairy farmers replicating the complex ecological matrix of conditions required for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or even Californians doing so for Champagne, on the basis of rights. In these cases, one might say that producer privilege supersedes that of consumers.
Critics of this anti-rights argument might counter that GMOs are bad for our health and, as a result, aren’t comparable to such arbitrary factors as butter temperature, Coke ingredients, hop ratios, or soil composition. There are two points to consider regarding this objection. First, and we’ve been over this before, there’s no concrete evidence that GMOs pose a unique risk to human health. The American Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—among many other authorities—have all said as much.
Opponents of GMOs routinely note that not enough time has passed to deem GMOs safe for human consumption. This is a fair concern, one worth discussing, as are all cases involving the precautionary principle. But to get a sense of where it might lead we should begin by asking at what exact point in time corn hybrids, pioneered in the 1930s, were deemed safe for human consumption. GMOs have been a staple of our food supply for 20 years. They are in the majority of the processed food we eat. And they are fed to most of animals we eat. How much more time is required before we admit that they are, as far as food goes, relatively safe?
Second, the vagaries of human digestion and ecological conditions are such that virtually any aspect of food production—cooking temperature, ingredient blends, and trademarked formulas—can make certain consumers, or groups of consumers, sick, while, at the same time, leaving others unaffected or even healthier. Welcome to the confused reality of eating: Threading the needle between the land and the digestive tract is an unavoidably risky endeavor and, given the scientific evidence, unaffected by the presence or absence of GMOs in our food supply.
Considering all of these factors, a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails.
But this does not mean there shouldn’t be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label. This is where things get more interesting. The federal government began to implicitly recognize this possible right in 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By 1938, with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, this concern was made explicit and, over time, passively embraced by consumers as a legitimate right.
And it is here that we inch closer to a viable justification for GMO labeling. About a decade ago, some food companies, capitalizing on the public vilification (and misunderstanding) of GMOs, began to add value to their products by voluntarily labeling their goods as “GMO free” (the USDA approved this label in 2013). While this initiative inspired some companies to voluntarily label foods with GMOs in them—namely Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s—the non-GMO label, in the name of clarity, ultimately fostered consumer confusion. It planted a question mark on the vast majority of the food supply—a majority that may or may not have had GMOs in them and, as a result, became (by virtue of the non-GMO label alone) indirectly misleading. It is this situation that a GMO label would help rectify, reducing the possibility of consumers being misled.
Yes, this is an odd hook upon which to hang the GMO label. (It’s a justification that, for one, questions the wisdom of allowing a product to declare on a label what’s not in it.) But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.
Every major food-related technology throughout history—refrigeration and canning come to mind for the past century—was roundly condemned before it was accepted as the norm. As GMOs become associated with products designed to have a clear human health benefit—oil without trans fat, yeast for wine that won’t cause a hangover, biofortified foods—they might have something to gain by no longer hiding in plain sight. If not now, then eventually.