Friday, November 2, 2012

Why would anyone oppose the labeling of foods containing genetically-modified organisms?

If you live in California, you are no doubt aware that next week voters will find a proposition on their ballots which would require the disclosure of genetically-modified ingredients on the label of foods made with such ingredients.  This proposition has been designated Proposition 37, and its full text can be found here.

It is difficult to imagine why some voters would not want to have GMO ingredients labeled on the food that they consider for purchase and consumption (GMO stands for "genetically-modified organism").

One reason that opponents are putting forward as a reason to vote against this proposition is the fact that the labeling requirement provides numerous exceptions, which opponents attack as arbitrary and contradictory.  However, since the vast majority of dollars contributed by opponents of 37 come from the producers of genetically-modified foods and the producers of chemicals used to spray genetically-modified crops, it is disingenuous of opponents to argue that they would actually support a labeling law if only it had fewer exceptions.  Does anyone really believe that these opponents would become supporters of labeling GMO ingredients, if only the proposed law were tougher?

If consumers actually desire to know when food they consider purchasing and consuming contains genetically-modified ingredients, then refusing to vote for some labeling requirements until there are no exceptions does not seem to make much sense.  There may be other reasons to withhold support for this initiative, but the argument that it doesn't go far enough does not seem to be one of them, since it is hard to argue that some labeling is not better than no labeling, unless you are dead-set against labeling for any reason.  

That's kind of like saying that, if labeling of GMO ingredients is not required, then we should not require any ingredients to be identified or labeled on the foods we shop for!   If ingredient laws are not perfect -- if they don't require everything that I think they should require -- then we should vote to remove any ingredient-listing requirement!  Does that make sense? 

I like being able to read the ingredients on the labels of the foods that I consider for purchase.  It is possible to take a strictly libertarian or anarchist or voluntarist position and argue that the government should not require any ingredients to be listed.  Such purists might argue that forcing companies to label ingredients is morally wrong. If companies don't voluntarily wish to list ingredients, that should be up to them.  Consumers can choose to avoid buying the food of companies that don't voluntarily list ingredients, and only buy from those who do.  They can contact food companies who do not list ingredients, and ask them nicely if they would consider doing so.  This argument does seem to have some merit.

However, it seems far-fetched to believe that the majority of people who are planning to vote against Prop 37 are doing so because they have a moral problem with requiring the listing of ingredients at all.  The number of people raising their voices to say that mandating ingredients on food packaging is an evil seems to be very few.  This fact does not mean that ingredient laws are right: just because the majority thinks something is all right does not make it so (we can think of slavery in past centuries as an example).  

However, against those who take a purist position and argue that food companies should never be forced to disclose any ingredients we can offer the counter-argument that consumers of food are generally at the mercy of food companies.  In modern societies, it is very difficult for people to grow all of their own food, to produce every single item that they consume.  Those who do so will not have much time for anything else.  If we want people to pursue careers programming computer networks or designing semiconductors or manufacturing automobiles or building houses, then those people will be "forced" to rely on others to produce at least some of the food that they themselves consume (while those who produce the food must rely on them to program the computer networks that they use or the microchips that guide their farm equipment or the cars or trucks that they drive to town or the houses that give them shelter from the elements). 

In light of this fact, the purist position against requiring ingredients becomes more difficult to maintain.  It is not impossible to maintain, but it does seem that the person forced to rely on others to provide food does have some right to know what is in the food, and some standards of ingredient-labeling seem to be necessary. 

But, unless you are against ingredient laws of any sort, it is difficult to understand why anyone would be against the inclusion of genetic modifications in those lists of ingredients.  Genetically-modified organisms contain genetic material from other organisms -- shouldn't consumers be notified of that, just as they expect to be notified if a product contains peanuts, salt, or monosodium glutamate?  

The image above shows some of the "ingredients" of genetically-modified H7-1 beets.  Those beets contain genetic material from the figwort mosaic virus, genetic material from the Arabidopsis thaliana plant, and genetic material from Agrobacterium.  Why would you argue that the ingredients shown to consumers should not include an indication that the beets contain genetic material from other organisms?  

(Note that the proposed law as written does not require the actual listing of the genetic material described above, but only the statement that the product "May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering" -- but even though we might argue that it would be better to include the list of every organism that contributed its genetic material, that does not seem to be a good reason to argue that we should therefore provide no identification of the genetic engineering whatsoever, as has been discussed already).

Another argument that is advanced by opponents of labeling is the argument that genetically-modified food is completely safe.  However, those who are arguing that it should be identified on the package are not necessarily arguing that it is unsafe.  We already require ingredients to be listed on nearly all foods -- we don't only require the listing of ingredients that might be unsafe.  Of course, it is also possible to argue that the safety of genetically-modified foods has not yet been completely settled.  However, even if they were completely safe, this is no reason to argue that they should therefore not be identified at all.  In fact, if they are proven beyond any doubt to be completely safe then there should be absolutely no reason to fear that labeling GMOs will lead to much lower sales of foods containing such ingredients.

It is very difficult to understand why anyone who consumes food produced by others would not want to be able to see what is in that food.  It is very difficult to understand why anyone would not want to have the ability to know if the food they are purchasing contains genetically-modified ingredients.

However, it is possible to understand why some people would think that such labeling might lead to lower sales of food products that do contain GMOs.  This might be a motive for opposing the labeling of GMOs -- the concern that sales of some products will decrease.  The contributions by opponents of Prop 37 reinforces this suspicion.  So, we have perhaps discovered one reason why someone would oppose GMO labeling: the profit motive*.

It is, however, difficult to imagine why anyone else would oppose the labeling of foods containing genetically-modified ingredients.


* Note that just because some people might oppose labeling because they fear the loss of some of their profits, this does not mean that everyone who produces genetically-modified food is automatically against the labeling of that food.  One would hope that there are those who have no problem with disclosing what is inside the products that they sell to others, especially if they believe in what they are selling.  Many products (not just food) require that the seller disclose to the buyer many or all of the aspects of the product they are selling, even if the buyer does not ask.  It would be hoped that most people who produce or sell goods do not seek to avoid having to say what is in the product.  The fact that some people who oppose labeling may do so because they fear a decrease in profits does not mean that every person involved in the production or sale of food in some way also opposes labeling because they fear a decrease in profits.  In fact, it is quite possible that only a very small minority oppose it for this reason.  However, it would also be naive to think that none of the opposition is related to profit motive.

It should go without saying that some of the supporters of Prop 37 may well have their own profit motive for supporting the proposed law.  Nevertheless, it would seem that disclosing ingredients gives consumers a better capability of exercising their own voluntary choices in the selection of products.  Hiding information does not.