This week, President Obama is expected to sign legislation that will require labels on foods produced using ingredients from genetically modified crops — a notion many in food and farming circles once considered unthinkable.
That is, until they were confronted with the potential for something much worse — multiple labelling laws. In the absence of a national labelling law applied universally across the country, the food industry was facing the prospect of individual states, starting with Vermont, passing their own laws, creating a hodgepodge of confusing rules.
Uncertainty in business costs money. Labelling foods that are made from GMO ingredients doesn’t have to cost a bundle as long as it doesn’t have to be done a bunch of different ways. So even some of the biggest opponents to labelling, such as the American Soybean Association, threw their support behind the U.S. bill in the end.
The Senate voted by a large margin to approve the bill that identifies GMO contents with words, pictures or a bar code that consumers can scan into their smartphones to find out more. The House of Representatives followed the Senate’s lead last week.
It now appears a similar debate is coming to Canada, with the introduction of a private member’s bill by Quebec MP Pierre Dusseault, calling for mandatory labelling of any genetically modified foods offered for sale.
Many private member’s bills never see the light of day, let alone become law, but stranger things have happened. So those who oppose this kind of labelling will be watching it closely.
The question becomes, what should they do about it? How about nothing?
Statistics gathered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the U.S., which tracked federal lobbying disclosures, suggests the U.S. food industry and promoters of biotechnology spent $100 million or more fighting the GMO labelling movement. Big money managed to turn the tide in referendums in California and Washington, but despite winning those battles, it lost the war.
And it lost it to largely underfunded campaigners who relied heavily on social media to promote their cause.
There are passionate proponents for labelling in this country too, starting with teenaged-activist Rachel Parent, who travelled to Ottawa recently to meet with Canada’s Minister of Health Jane Philpott on the issue.
Parent, who founded Kids Right to Know, a group dedicated to labelling GMO foods, after doing a science fair project, rose to fame when she debated the hosts of CBC’s “Lang & O’Leary Show” in 2013.
In that debate, the spunky Parent fended off sophisticated efforts by her opponents to portray her as part of a privileged class who opposes genetic engineering and who is therefore OK with millions of people in poor countries dying from malnutrition.
Parent stuck to her point: people want to know what is in their food, or in this case, what went into producing it. She says she doesn’t want to eat GMO food but respects the right of those who do.
Granted, her campaign also connects making healthier food choices with GMO labelling, which is exactly the kind of linkage the food industry wants to avoid.
Agribusiness fears that if GMO foods are labelled, people will think there is something different or dangerous about them when the science is pretty clear there isn’t.
A new expert panel report from the National Academies in the United States called “Experiences and Prospects for Genetically Engineered Crops,” found no substantiated evidence of risk — with the exception of more insect and herbicide resistance — after more than two decades of use.
Yet critics argue that if the industry has nothing to hide, why is it so opposed to labelling? The harder it fights, the louder that gets.
In a July 8 paper commenting on the U.S. report, Loren Rieseberg, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Plant Evolutionary Genomics at the University of British Columbia, doesn’t comment on the labelling issue. But he notes public skepticism is holding back growth in a useful area of science, partly because of stringent regulatory processes implemented in an effort to appease public concerns.
He cites one company’s statistics that say bringing a new genetically engineered trait into commercial production costs an average of US$136 million and takes 13 years. Some want even more testing.
Labelling wouldn’t eliminate the need for regulatory oversight but the increased transparency might reduce the pressure for increasing it.
So here’s a thought. If and when the GMO labelling debate starts to heat up in Canada, put it on ice. Embrace the inevitable, encourage consumers to read their labels and let them draw their own conclusions.