Own it, don't hide it: The pro-GMO backlash

Agribusiness gears up to spend millions fighting GMO labeling in Washington. Here's a better battle plan: Don't block disclosure, tout it.
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Non-GMO sweet corn

Agribusiness gears up to spend millions fighting GMO labeling in Washington. Here's a better battle plan: Don't block disclosure, tout it.

Big Food and Big Chem should take a lesson from Richard Nixon and Al Capone: It’s not the crime that’ll get you, it’s the cover-up. Last year Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico and their brethren spent $45.6 million — more than five times what proponents spent — to defeat California’s Intitiative 37, which would have required that genetically engineered foods be labeled. They’ll dig deep again to oppose Washington’s largely similar I-522, which last month qualified for the November ballot. The Northwest Food Processors Association declared its opposition even before I-522’s petition signatures were certified.

The opponents will roll out the same claims that, loudly amplified, worked in California: Disclosing that foods contain GMOs will drive up prices. It will spawn costly new regulations and bureaucracy. The industry will emphasize the supposedly baleful effects of labeling on small and midsize local businesses while keeping the big backers in the background. Doubtless, they'll trot out some weathered family farmer who will decry GMO disclosure as the worst thing since locust plagues and the Dust Bowl.

All this and more in defense of the public's right not to know what’s in their food. You’ve got to wonder: What are these people thinking?

I should stipulate that I’m agnostic on the GMO question (so lay on from both sides, friends). I suspect genetically modified foods will prove largely harmless to human health, with the possible exception of rare allergic reactions. A few trillion GMO-tainted meals already eaten without conspicuous incident constitute a pretty large, if informal, study sample.

Ecological health, bio- and crop diversity and long-term food security are other matters. There the effects of genetic manipulation may be more complex and, sometimes, deleterious. But GMOs are just the latest — and hardly the greatest — in a long line of ecosystem-scale abuses (i.e., agricultural practices) that we’ve undertaken in order to feed billions of our species. Any impacts must be weighed against the enormous benefits of increasing crop yield and forestalling conversions of rainforest and other habitats to croplands — if those promises are true.

How much can genetic modification actually do to achieve them, and how sustainably? Despite the industry’s hype and its critics’ dismissals, no one seems to have a good handle on that question. It begs for more measured, open research and debate.

Instead we get hysterical alarms about fish tomatoes and the creepy “terminator seeds” that never actually reached the market from one side, and secretive bunkering on the other. Why does gene-swapping provoke so much more fear than climate change, ocean acidification, habitat and biodiversity loss, exotic species invasions, water depletion and contamination, and the inexorable momentum of population growth? For all the passion they incite, GMOs are way down on the list of actual eco-threats. Would that all the energy that goes into combating them could be mobilized on behalf of a carbon tax.

Sure, “Frankenfood” is a much more visceral horror than any number of degrees of temperature rise or parts per million of carbon dioxide. But any environmentalist who invokes the scientific consensus on climate change to beat back denialists should at least consider the question posed by GMO basher-turned-booster Mark Lynas: What about the scientific consensus in favor of agricultural biotech? Sorry, but Vandana Shiva does not trump the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Still, what’s wrong with a little disclosure? I'll probably vote for I-522, badly written as it is, in the full expectation that it will have only a marginal effect on consumer behavior and agribusiness profits. The food industry has trotted out the same dire predictions and big lobbying bucks against almost every previous food-labeling initiative — most notably the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which mandated the back-of-the-package lists of fat, salt, sugar, etc. that we now take for granted. Did those destroy the market for highly profitable unhealthy foods? Just try finding moderately salty chips at a typical supermarket. You may find one or two varieties amidst dozens of artery-pounding oversalted brands — almost all of them made by subsidiaries of Pepsico, the No. 3 funder of the campaign against California’s I-37.

Truth is, nothing would inure consumers to GMOs more than the news that most of what they’ve been eating all along contains them. Gene-hacking lies behind an estimated 70 percent of food products, and nearly all those containing the transgenic big three: corn, soy and canola. Going GMO-free will seem a daunting prospect to all but loyal PCC shoppers.

And if anyone’s worried, the Northwest Food Processors Association sniffs, let them eat organic: “Concerned consumers already can be assured that they are buying non-genetically modified product by buying organic.” Ergo, labeling is unnecessary. But most shoppers can’t or won’t consistently spend that kind of money. That will be just as true with GMO labeling — and biotech boosters can then claim credit for keeping prices down.

And that’s where Nixon comes in. The ferocious campaign to block even the most basic GMO disclosure stinks of the sort of cover-up that brought him down. It says that Big Ag and Big Chem have something to hide.

If they were smart, they wouldn’t hide their transgenic tinkering, they’d flaunt it. “Everybody I’ve talked to supports providing information,” says Heather Hansen, the executive director of ag group Washington Friends of Farms and Forests and a spokesperson for the anti-522 campaign. But then she threw in the stinger: “If it’s helpful, if it helps people make informed decisions about food. But to misinform, to imply that there should be concern about this technology….”

When they talk like that, the ag folks sound like the medieval church, burning heretics who dared translate the Bible into languages ordinary people could read. We’re supposed to let them decide what we can know about what’s in our food?

For all their talk about lawsuits and paperwork, the opposition seems most alarmed at the basic intent of I-522. “This initiative is geared at frightening people away from technology,” Hansen told the ag website Capital Press. Fine. Instead of frightening them even more by being secretive and defensive, lure them to the technology. Take a hint from Tom Sawyer, the original master of the whitewash, as well as Richard Nixon: Sell your weaknesses as strengths.

Get out ahead of the anti-GMO brigades. You say that food labeling should be enacted at the federal level, rather than done piecemeal by the states? Fine, demand  a federal GMO label. Establish a certified industry standard for foods that do contain GMOs. Call it “Better Trait®” or “Scientific Stamp of Approval®” or something like that. And promote the hell out of it. With all the bucks it has to spend, instead of blowing them fighting disclosure of GMOs, agribusiness could make us love them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.