It’s election season again. Another year to struggle through election ads. Another year to get an article from us talking about propositions to label genetically modified organisms. This year, however, offers something different and interesting within the political arena.
Keeping in mind that this is just my views on the situation – I’ve heard as many things and done as much research into the matter as I can, so consider myself pretty well informed, – I’m reading between the lines here, but there’s lots of interesting subtext between those lines. I’m not involved in any of the political movements going on this year, not even as a voter. I can’t really speak for either side, but there have been enough patterns in the history of movements to label genetically modified organisms that I’ve been able to ferret out an interesting story within the story.
Now, for those of you who are new to our thoughts on GMOs, the basic premise is quite complex: there are issues with using genetically modified foods, some feel beecause of the technology itself, but it’s pretty unambiguous that there are downsides to the practices the technology enables.
To a very real extent, genetically modified organisms represent both a poster child and a scapegoat for modern factory farming issues: they are essentially the straw-man argument that broke the camel’s back. The issue itself – putting GMOs in our food – may or may not be a good or a bad idea. The main thing that the FDA requires of a biotech company when bringing a new variety of product to market is the assurance that the new variety is very much like the original. This is true both for GMO and non-GMO products, and is called “Substantial Equivalence”. It was only ever intended to be a starting point for safety evaluations, but has become the de facto review process. In reality, the safety of the food should be based on proving not that a new breed of duck walks, talks, and quacks like its parents, but that eating it won’t kill you. Test it like a new drug rather than an old duck, in other words. Sadly, this costs money, as anyone familiar with US healthcare costs can tell you. We’re stuck with a compromise.
Substantial equivalence is a bit of a stretch in general; a new variety of potato might re-awaken the genes to produce the toxic alkaloids in its deadly nightshade ancestry even with non-GMO or “natural” variety creation practices. “Taste it and see if you die” is a bit of a harsh safety test, but it’s generally been fairly good when combined with “Also, it’s parents were potatoes”. I am not convinced that there shouldn’t be an additional requirement for the sort of varieties that can exist with genetic modification, however, because we have the ability to make new varieties very much unlike the original. We’ve made corn express a bacterial toxin (BT varieties), why not have our potato express a different bacterial toxin, say the anthrax toxin? It’s technically possible, and could pass the review process as it stands, even though I predict that Anthrax au Gratin would be be a bit of a slow seller with few repeat customers. This just highlights how odd it is to compare said potato to, well, anything else, and think that you know something from it. For better or worse, that’s how our food system tends to evaluate safety in any new food.
Because of the risk of introducing a major GMO flop on the market, like Anthrax Tots, biotech companies have heretofore gone way above and beyond this minimum guideline to attempt a safety evaluation their products. It’s been rightfully said that our existing GM plants, up to now, have been studied more than any other plants in history. If they are unsafe, it’s not from lack of study.
While people have questions about the safety of GMOs, that’s not what’s going on with the labeling of them. It’s about freedom of choice. Labeling a Venti Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte with 2% (standard) Milk and Whipped Cream as having half your day’s allowance of saturated fat probably hasn’t made you any safer, but you might think twice about slurping a mug or two down this fall now that you know. If we didn’t have mandatory nutrition facts labels, you would never know.
The deeper issue is the fact that GMO organisms are the tools which best allow companies to press ever farther in the factorization of our food. It’s the whole ecosystem around GMOs, and not the organisms themselves, that have tainted the name of genetic modification.
It’s a lot harder to get people to label food as “coming from a factory farm that bathes its debt-ridden farmer in chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the detriment of the environment” than it is to label food as “containing genetically modified ingredients”. It’s a proxy that can have a well-defined meaning.
The ability to patent genes gives more power to companies that have a history of using fairly abusive business practices that are hard on farmers. The methods by which conventional food is grown is pretty harmful for the environment, because the basic idea is to shut out the environment: to create a cleanroom in the outdoors in which only, say, corn is grown, and no weeds or pests are allowed. This creates an arms race where GMOs are the latest smart weapon in maintaining our mastery over Mother Nature, but she can be a bit of a witch – weeds and pests are adjusting to even this latest development. The system falls out of balance, requiring ever more machinery and technology (and therefore product purchases) to maintain our food system in the face of its own negative impacts: loss of topsoil because fields lay bare to erosion rather than being cross-planted with other crops, chemicals and fertilizers that flow through our watershed and cause massive algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, and all those other harbingers of the apocalypse that nobody fixes until they can make money from doing it.
I’m all for industry and efficiency, but there is a point when you’re working really hard to create products that nobody really wants if they knew how you made it. Forming pesticides that were never meant to be ingested right in the cells of our food just to make it easier to manufacture just might not be worth it to people. A little whitewashing is to be expected (“GMOs feed the world!” Well, of course they do if all the crops are genetically modified), but we’re seeing a complete opacity about GMO food supply. The data just gets lost somewhere between “90 percent of US corn is GM” and your shopping cart.
And that’s really the thing about consumer choice: maybe you have been waiting all year for your pumpkin spice latte, and you don’t care about its saturated fat content. Or maybe you do care, but you’ll choose a soymilk latte with no whip. Whatever you decide, nobody is harmed by more transparent access to information, minus the scant cents that we all pitch in to support labeling all our foods. Without the label, people who do care can’t be sure if their food is GMO or not, but with the label, you’ve sacrificed pocket change. I feel like taking the route of more information is the lesser of two evils.
Although campaigns for and against GMO labeling can’t get into nearly this level of depth about the issues – it’s historically been “Consumer right to know” vs. “Taxpayer burden for yet another bureaucracy” messages on election day – both sides are well aware that this is an issue of choosing whether or not some consumers will select products based on their sustainability – or, more importantly, chose someone else’s products because one’s own selections are not sustainable. There’s a reason that Whole Foods doesn’t carry, say, Pepsi products, because they’re not produced in a way in which Whole Foods approves. Pepsi was the third largest campaign contributor against GMO labeling in both California and Washington, with a net contribution of about $3.8 million. Keep in mind that Pepsico owns not only its cola brands, but also owns Fritos, Lays, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos, Sun Chips, Quaker Oats, and many other diverse food products that are all sensitive in one way or another to cheap input supplies. It’s clear that even a tiny shift in how we produce our food leaves them very exposed. They had liabilities of $53.2 million in 2013, so it’s pretty clear that an investment of a few mil. to keep their food cheap is cents on the dollar for their balance sheet. Based on some estimates of wholesale prices of cans of cola, at 25-30 cents per can, Pepsico could literally have bought a Pepsi for every voter on election day with their campaign contributions, about 26.7 cents per vote cast.
Oh, and Coca-Cola is a big contributor against labeling as well. Brings new meaning to the “If I could buy the world a Coke” advertisement, doesn’t it?
Look, I don’t have anything against Pepsi or Coke. I think they employ lots of smart, morally solid people who just strive to do good business. That business involves low-priced inputs. It’s about where the boundaries lie: how far down can we push agricultural costs until the societal costs start to become overwhelming? As long as consumers can’t make informed choices, that’s effectively never – we’ll never even have the chance to tell Coke or Pepsi we’ll pay just a bit more to have their suppliers stop pushing for cheaper and cheaper food, regardless of the harm it causes during its manufacture. There are plenty of people who are coming to this realization now, that’s why they want to know what’s in their food enough to put legislation on state ballots. Until that information can flow, however, it’s the best business practice to pay to keep people from knowing the answer. Save on your costs. There’s big money in cheap food.
In California, $45.6 million dollars was spent to adjust the votes from 2 to 1 in favor of labeling before any marketing was done to a result of 51.4% against, 48.6% in support of labeling. $8.7 million dollars was raised from organic and pure foods companies and individuals to support the campaign to label. This is a ratio of 5.2 to 1 in terms of campaign cost.
In Washington, labeling opposition spent $22 million vs $8.4 million, with a result of 51% against, 49% supporting mandatory GMO labeling. This is a ratio of 2.6 to 1 in campaign costs, and broke records as the largest dollar value raised and spent for any Washington initiative ever. Again, before the election, polls showed a general opinion of 2 to 1 in favor of labeling.
So twice before, voters have been able to be swayed with expensive campaigns to defeat labeling of GMO foods. Surprisingly, however, Vermont legislators have snuck in there since the publicly-voted referendums: they passed a law requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled in the state, bypassing the necessity of having the general population vote. Not surprisingly, the same organizations that spent money to defeat the referendums are involved in suing the state of Vermont for passing this law, but at least there is a precedent of “this thing ain’t going away” being established.
Up to now, enough money has been spent by opponents of GMO labeling to prevent the labeling initiatives, though the fact that initiatives have been repeatedly created in new states, and that one state and many municipalities have already introduced labeling requirements, shows that momentum is building to get products labeled. This year we have not one but two states which have presented referendums for general voting: Colorado’s Proposition 105 and Oregon’ Measure 92. Here’s why we might see one of these passed in this very year.
While we don’t know the exact amount of money being used either for or against Colorado’s proposition, as it’s still early, we do know that Colorado Right to Know, the group spearheading the proposition, collected almost twice the minimum necessary signatures to place the proposition on the ballot. Colorado has also shown a predisposition to be creative with agricultural legislation, having passed marijuana legalization in 2012 with Amendment 64.
Wait, did Pepsico support this amendment to boost sales of their Doritos and Cheetos munchies? I couldn’t find finance data anywhere, but the idea amuses me greatly. We’ll surely know more about Colorado as the proposition gets closer to voting day.
As far as Oregon goes, this year’s measure is not the first time a measure to label genetically modified foods has hit the ballot there. In 2002, Measure 27 was proposed to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, but was resoundingly defeated 70% to 30%. No finance data is readily available here either, but the landscape is different now, a dozen years in the future. More people are aware of GMO foods and their ties to unsustainable farming practices. New GMO organisms, including salmon, are being proposed, and people are more averse to the newer species up for modification, as well as what new characteristics they wish to introduce – faster growth rather than insect resistance, say. Farmers have more experience in the world of GMO crops, and are now much more suspicious of the profit motive behind transgenic organisms.
Finally, Oregon has a very large organic farming presence which has become well aware of the difficulties in coexisting with GMO crops: pollution from genetic exchange, “leaky genes” that can’t be told to stay out of organic crops, have ruined farms where nature could not be fenced out. Not only is it not legally allowed to have GMO genes in organic foods, but farmers have been sued by biotech companies for patent infringement, though no malicious intent was present on the farmer’s part, when neighboring farms’ transgenic plants didn’t get the memo to keep their pollen fenced in. Polls now show an inversion and then some of the 2002 result: 77% are for labeling GMO products, 12% against, with 11% undecided. This will surely shift as well, based on the marketing campaigns that happen moving forward, but how much will it cost to get the shift over the halfway point?
So we’re seeing an interesting strategy unfold in the way GMO labeling is progressing: at one time, people just wanted to get labels on products which would hint about that product’s sustainability (or lack thereof), but it was possible to buy out the issue with enough money and marketing. Now, it seems clear that this game will play on until it becomes financially unfeasible for companies to invest in preventing labeling: how many cans of cola does Pepsi have to sacrifice until it becomes less expensive to source their supplies sustainably? I don’t know the answer, but you bet Pepsi does. And you bet when that time comes, we’ll see a pretty rapid shift in the number and quality of sustainable products hitting the market. That sounds like a good thing to me.
This is going to be an interesting year to watch campaign finance to see if we’re there yet.
If history holds true, then there will have to be much more money raised on behalf of opposing these referendums, and the battlefront is now being waged in two states at the same time. The companies that support GMO labeling appear ready to continue doing so for some time to come; after all, giving the public more information is a very positively viewed activity. Supporting GMO labeling is not only good business practice for these companies and individuals, as they don’t depend on GMO inputs for their businesses, it makes them look good as well. It’s a positive investment. It’s good marketing.
Trying to prevent labeling looks like a campaign from the Big Ag Man trying to keep the public ignorant, which is a very poor marketing message indeed. It’s a preventative investment, not a proactive one. Perhaps this is why the money going into and against labeling is very public on the pro side and not talked about on the con side: Mercola.com, Dr. Bronner’s, Clif Bar, and other supporters of labeling are very vocal about their support, whereas the opposing side is very quiet about participation.
When you look at the political landscape, it seems clear that this fight is all but won as long as the general public doesn’t lose interest in the issue. It’s just so expensive to wage a siege war. New states pop up every year discussing propositions to label GMOs. If it’s not California, maybe it’s Washington. If not there, then maybe Vermont, or Colorado, or Oregon. Eventually, it seems clear, at least one state in the US will catch up to the rest of the developed world and require labeling of their products, which will potentially set up a precedent for more states to follow, simply because the large companies who are funding the opposition can’t afford to keep hemorrhaging money into opposition campaigns. It will just stop making economic sense at some point to keep the labels off.
To that end, you as a reader can do something very simple and straightforward to shorten the cycle and force the issue. If you live in Colorado or Oregon, think about the issues and arm yourself with information; also, consider sharing the paragraphs below with your friends and family. It costs you very little to make the purchasing of voting opinion very expensive for companies which wish to maintain the status quo.
Colorado and Oregon both have referendums this election season to label genetically modified food. While there is no evidence that genetically modified food has health or safety implications, regulations which require information for purely informative purposes, like artificial coloring or added water, already exist. Companies that have an interest in genetic engineering, like Monsanto, DuPont, and DOW, as well as companies that rely on genetically modified ingredients in their supply chain, such as Pepsico, Kraft, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, and many others, have a history of funding campaigns in other states to keep this information from being included as a required label.
We don’t think these companies are evil, just that their margins depend on keeping costs low. They can do that best by using practices that are sometimes unsustainable to the environment and can have harmful consequences for our food producers. This isn’t due to malice, it’s due to ever-downward pressure to make cheaper and cheaper food, and genetically modified foods are one powerful tool which provides this pressure.
Organizations that support transparency in our foods, like Dr. Bronner’s, Clif Bar, Nature’s Path, and organic partnerships have taken steps to avoid genetically modified organisms in their supply chain. Their support for adding labels naturally supports consumer interest: allowing us to be informed about our purchases makes their products more valuable, and we both win.
Freedom of choice depends on freedom of knowledge, but Americans don’t yet deserve to know the whole truth behind what’s in our food, not when there’s a risk that we might not like what we hear.
Currently 64 countries across the globe, including all of Europe, Russia, Australia, China, India, through to several African countries require GMO labeling. The US and Canada occupy a unique position amongst first-world countries in that we do not require labeling.
Since these labels are already a part of international food trade, the cost of labeling these foods is relatively very small. The referendums have been constructed in such a way as to minimize taxpayer cost: according to the State of Washington’s Office of Financial Management’s prediction for cost of implementing its Initiative 522, it would have cost less than 50 cents per Washingtonian per year to manage regulation. The campaign funds contributed to oppose labeling in Washington and California would have paid for the program for over 120 years!
This massive amount of campaign funding – the highest amount ever contributed in one initiative ever in the state of Washington – cannot be sustained indefinitely by private corporations into the future. This gives you a fantastic opportunity to change our food system: if you make it too costly to sustain the ignorance of the public, we will get labels, and we will get our freedom of choice.
If you believe that consumers should know what’s in their food, even if the ingredients are not known to be harmful, support labeling. Buy products and support companies who understand that you value the ethics of your food. Think about where the things that you eat come from, and ask if the world would be a better place if we all knew just a little more about our food’s autobiography.
Your friends at the Knife & Fork Project.