I’m a label reader. I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and red dyes in my food because I have convinced myself it is healthier. I have to avoid peanuts, shell fish, and strawberries because I am allergic. My children and husband also suffer from food sensitivities. Reading labels allows me to protect them and myself. As far as I am concerned, more information about our food is good for consumers, which is why I find it more than a little perplexing people would fight against California’s Proposition 37.
The Yes on Prop 37 campaign says it would “require any raw or processed food made from genetically altered plant or animal material to be labeled as of July 1, 2014, when it would go into effect. Raw foods, like papaya or corn, for example, would be labeled “Genetically Engineered.” Processed foods may require labels like, “Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering,” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” It also prohibits labeling such foods as “natural.” The Department of Public Health would be responsible for enforcing all labeling.”
Sounds good to me. What’s the big deal?
Apparently a lot.
The No on Prop 37 campaign argues labeling could make food prices higher and that anyway the science behind the risks of genetically manufactured organisms (GMOs) has not been proven. Let’s think about this…
Early in my career, I worked as a Brand Manager at Nestle Corporation. Brands made labeling changes fairly regularly in order to attract the consumer’s eye at the point of purchase. The cost of this change was absorbed as a cost of marketing. The price for this cost was not passed on to the consumer simply because the consumer has so many choices, the food manufacturer would not want to risk losing her (or his) loyalty.
In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act. It was signed into law by President Bush and required food manufacturers to standardize labeling of their products. Boy did the companies complain. They argued consumers would be harmed because food prices would sky rocket. Well, they didn’t. Sure adding a new nutritional notification requires an inconvenient and costly packaging change for food manufacturers who then could pass these changes on to consumers. But in the end, the short-term cost of making these labeling changes is absorbed by the market and prices do not rise. You can read a deep analysis regarding food price implications of Prop 37 here. In sum, the threat of higher food prices is simply a distraction and a spurious argument at best. Nice try though.
What about the health issues? You’ve probably seen the GMO rats as a result of the 1998 studies done in the United Kingdom. They are disgusting and deeply concerning. These studies created the “Frankenfood” scare and led Europe to ban GMOs for the more than a decade. It may be GMOs kill rats and goats and other animals, but the impact on humans remains unclear.
While Europe was running away from GMOS, we here in the states were racing towards them. Today, nearly 90% of the corn, soy, and other crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered. The result? We, Americans, are one big research project. According to the No campaign team, there have been no proven direct links between genetically engineered food and an increase in illness (of course, the obesity epidemic does come to mind).
But, this could be case of we don’t yet know what we don’t know. Perhaps the impact takes a lifetime to reveal itself. Have you watched Mad Men lately? I love the sly commentary on the advertising of cigarettes. Remember when they said they were actually healthy for us? They weren’t lying at the time. They did’t know. What don’t we know now?
And what about the environment? Anti-GMOers cite study after study that seems to link genetically engineered crops and Round Up with the decline of monarch butterflies and the near eradication of honey bees. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that crop poisoning occurs. The birds and the bees travel from plant to plant spreading the nectar and seeds. They don’t have an internalized wall that says oops can’t cross this line because that row of corn is genetically modified and this one isn’t. Crop poisoning is inevitable. This means that soon all of our crops could be tainted with genetically engineered foods.
Given all of the conflicting issues surrounding GMOs, why not put a label on a box of Corn Flakes? Well Monsanto, who produces the vast majority of these genetically engineered seeds, would rather not have to deal with it. You see they have a profitable double barreled approach to weed control. Here’s how it works:
Farmers complain about weeds limiting their crops. Monsanto creates this great little herbicide called Round Up and it also creates a genetically modified seed that won’t be killed when sprayed with Round Up. This means farmers can spray at will, killing invasive weeds but not the crops. Crops yields go up, farmers sell more of their crops, so they are happy. Monsanto is happy because farmers are growing and spraying the company’s products like there is not tomorrow.
The problem comes in when the weeds become resistant to Round Up and then the farmers have to spray different herbicides. The good news is that Monsanto has them and creates a different genetically engineered seed that is impervious to the new and different herbicides. You see the loop here. As long as we are willing to accept genetically engineered foods, Monsanto can keep on selling its products.
How does this relate to labeling? Well, as any good marketer knows, labeling creates awareness. If consumers are suddenly aware that the vast majority of their food is made with genetically engineered crops, they might get a little concerned and question the benefits of Monsanto’s star products. Then environmentalists, food purists, health nuts and the like might be joined with everyday Jills and Jacks to challenge the benefits of the “Frankenfood.” The moment consumers walk away from these products (because their corn flakes have a label informing them that the cereal is made from compromised crops), then the profit loop is compromised.
As such, Monsanto has much reason to resist the labeling. But they needn’t worry. The truth is, genetically engineered foods are with us to stay. According to a recent article in Time magazine, The U.N. says the world population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050, requiring a 70% rise in global food production to feed the planet. We simply can’t produce this much food without the help of GMOs. Of course, those who will be consuming these modified foods will be the 99% who can’t afford anything else.
For now though, I am not asking Monsanto to stop producing its genetically engineered seeds. I am not asking agribusiness to stop planting said seeds. At least, not yet. What I am asking for is the power to decide with my own almighty dollar. When you add something to my food, just let me know. It’s not too much to ask, now is it?