The Trouble With GMO Labeling – What’s a Biotech Giant to Do?

Soybeans

The issue of genetically modified food touches a lot of nerves.  Some people believe that GMOs are going to be absolutely essential to feed the earth’s quickly rising population. Others react strongly against the technology, calling it unproven, a corporate power grab, unsafe for agriculture, and possibly unhealthy to eat.  Most folks fall somewhere in the middle, or just don’t know a whole lot.

As somone who took a genetics class in college at Monsanto Hall, who now lives in organics-obsessed San Francisco, I’d like to think I’ve had a reasonably well rounded exposure to the many arguments surrounding the issue – both rational and otherwise.

In recent years, a core food policy issue in the United States has been the debate over whether or not foods containing GMOs should be labeled, as they are in Europe, Japan and many other countries. Those who support labeling argue that there is sufficient consumer concern over the unintended consequences of GMOs that people wish to make purchasing decisions to avoid them. On the other hand, many agriculture and biotech companies oppose such labels on the grounds that they would complicate matters, raising costs and hassle for food producers and ultimately, consumers. Also, when it comes to human consumption there is very little evidence that GMO foods are any different, at least no more than foods not labeled “Kosher” or “Halal” (eco-systemic issues are another story). Another argument says that consumers can already avoid GMOs by buying foods labeled “organic.”

Nonetheless, any arguments for and against may soon be moot points if California’s Proposition 37 becomes law in November. The law would require most foods that contain genetically modified ingredients to be labeled (details here). Laws of this type passed in California are often “de-facto” national laws because of the sheer size of California’s economy. If the poll numbers are to be believed, this law has a very strong likelihood of passing.

So what’s the best move for a biotech company like Dow, DuPont or Monsanto?

Clearly there are two choices:

1) Spend millions trying to defeat the proposition in its tracks,  and possibly win (for now).

2) Let the ballot initiative pass, and let GMOs stand on their merits for consumers to decide (complications of labeling and claims of irrationality aside).

Yes, there’s a chance that a massive ad campaign could convince enough California voters to change their minds at the ballot, but it strikes me as a long shot.  Even if it’s successful, it risks the added problem of making biotech look even worse in the eyes of those already hostile to it, not to mention those bothered by corporate influence in government in general (and they’d have a good point).

A bolder, possibly riskier path might be to let the ballot initiative roll unopposed. The consequences? There would be a long debate about exactly what constitutes sufficient GMO content to merit a label. Then most bulk and processed food would wind up with some kind of little sticker saying “may contain GMO ingredients.”

Will it lead to a run on organic products and chaos in the industrial food system? Will consumers shrug and keep buying their Lucky Charms regardless? At the end of the day, no one really knows what will happen. But by not raising a hurricane of protest, biotech companies would score positive PR and possibly open the door to dialogue with those who have historically considered them arch-enemies.  At the very least, from a strictly self-centered perspective they’d avoid calling as much attention to the issue as a big public fight would.

I’m of the cautiously optimistic persuasion that GMOs may have a role to play in feeding the world (and possibly other things like algae-based biofuel). But there is enough evidence that ecosystem impacts and the rise of  corporate control of our food system present concerns worth fostering deeper discussion on a wider level. A label may provoke that.

What do you think?

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.