When It Comes to GMO Labeling, Maybe the ‘Right to Know’ Isn’t Enough

The ‘Washington Post’ editorial board comes out against mandatory labels.

(Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Mar 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

What’s the reasoning behind mandatory GMO labeling laws? With dueling bills in Congress—one backed by the food industry, one not—it’s a question worth considering. Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act would require all food products that contain GMOs to be labeled. The Safe and Accurate Food Label Act, the industry-backed bill reintroduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., last week, would preempt state-level labeling laws but would also establish federal standards for a voluntary GMO-free label.

The editorial board of The Washington Post is throwing its weight behind the latter approach. In a piece published Monday under the headline “We don’t need labels on genetically modified foods,” the board writes, “The GM-food debate is a classic example of activists overstating risk based on fear of what might be unknown and on a distrust of corporations.”

Which brings us back to the driving force behind the right-to-know movement: Is the intention to help consumers avoid GMOs, or to undercut their dominance in agriculture overall? Much of the campaigning around state labeling initiatives in California, Oregon, and Colorado circled around the idea of transparency—that people should know what’s in their food. But without any science to support the notion that consuming GMO ingredients presents a health risk, and more than 90 percent of both corn and soy genetically modified, what’s the cover-up that labeling would expose?

Still, companies such as Monsanto have given the public plenty of reason to be skeptical of its seeds and the chemicals they’ve been genetically modified to withstand. Agribusiness, with its near-complete commercial and intellectual-property control over large-scale food production, can look and behave like a monopoly. And with the recent announcement that glyphosate, the weed killer that GMO corn and soy allow to be used indiscriminately, is “probably” carcinogenic doesn’t help with the industry’s image problems.

While GMO bananas and rice have shown potential for helping to alleviate severe malnutrition issues in developing countries, the do-gooder side of genetic engineering has yet to come to bear domestically, where the upsides benefit farmers and food companies to the detriment of Monarch butterflies and, possibly, farmworkers exposed to Roundup. Which makes the Post’s assertion that “the world’s poorest will pay the highest price” if genetically engineered food becomes “an economic nonstarter” thanks to labeling laws ring false. As GMO crops are adopted around the world, there tends to be a initial reduction in the use of agrichemicals—invariably followed by an uptick as weeds and insects develop resistance. A 2013 study from Food and Water Watch found that the use of Roundup (Monsanto’s brand name for glyphosate) increased by 10 times between 1996 and 2012. In Argentina, where farmers have widely adopted GMO corn and soy, chemical use has spiked too—as have cancer rates.

But the health of an Iowa farmer spraying his corn with Roundup or of kids living alongside massive soy farms in Argentina doesn’t affect you, the consumer. It’s your right to know that labeling campaigns are fighting for—not, as Mark Bittman wrote recently about glyphosate and cancer, to “Stop Making Us Guinea Pigs.”

“Now that the safety of glyphosate is clearly in question, perhaps it’s time to mandate that the corporation—not the taxpaying public—bear the brunt of determining whether it should still be sold,” he proposed in a New York Times column.

The cancer concern, however, is not mentioned in the Post piece. Because while some labeling advocates, including chef Tom Colicchio, have expanded the conversation surrounding GMOs to include the chemical exposures of farmworkers, it remains a consumer-focused movement.

“Yes, food industry interests back the bill,” the Post editorial board writes. “That doesn’t make it wrong.”

And while it’s true that a federal non-GMO label would address consumer concerns—something the USDA Organic label, which can only appear on foods that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, already does—neither it nor Boxer’s Right-to-Know Act address those more complicated, less sexy concerns. Even if we don’t, as the Post suggests, need labels on genetically modified foods, we do need to know more about the people and wildlife genetically engineered crops are putting at risk.