Recent developments in food marketing reinforce the notion that Washington voters were correct to reject a GMO-labeling ballot measure in 2013.
Initiative 522, which would have required a conspicuous label on the front of packaging when a product contained genetically modified organisms, was rejected by 51 percent of voters. Now, market forces are driving efforts that cater to consumers who would prefer to avoid such organisms in their food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to begin verifying companies’ claims of GMO-free products if the company wishes to pay for such verification; Similac, a major producer of baby formula, is developing non-GMO versions of top-selling products; and Chipotle restaurants and others are moving toward GMO-free menus.
None of these developments, it must be noted, answer the question about whether consumers should be concerned about modified organisms in the food chain, and the anti-GMO movement actually could be damaging to food production. As Reason magazine caustically declared in a headline last month, “By Feeding Bogus GMO Fears, Chipotle Treats Customers Like Idiots.” Genetically modified crops have been engineered to be more resistant to insects and disease, require fewer insecticides, and require less land to grow the same amount of crops.
In short, modified crops are an important tool for ensuring a reliable food supply, particularly in poor nations where food insecurity is common. For one example, as reported by Metro.us, molecular biology journal EMBO Reports noted that vitamin A deficiency causes 500,000 cases of blindness and 6,000 child deaths annually around the world, “yet distribution of GMO rice enriched with beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, have been blocked by what the journal calls ‘overly cautious regulations.’ “
In the United States, an idea has gained momentum that engineered foods carry inherent health dangers. But the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science — along with other scientific and regulatory bodies — have determined that fears are unfounded. As science reporter Ronald Bailey wrote for Reason magazine, “Basically, this is a marketing ploy aimed at appealing to consumers who have been bamboozled into thinking that organic is good and biotech is bad. The consumer is always right, even when they are wrong.”
Consumers have every right to be wrong. If food producers perceive a growing demand for GMO-free products, then smart business practices suggest they should cater to that demand. The voluntary USDA labeling program and the decision by Chipotle and other restaurants serve as reasonable alternatives, and they are preferable to the mandatory inflammatory labeling that advocates sought through Washington’s I-522 and through ballot measures in other states. Voters in Oregon, California, and Colorado also rejected labeling, while Vermont has been the only state to pass such a law.
The most important thing is that consumers have access to reliable information presented in a reasonable fashion. Scientific consensus says genetically modified foods do not present a health danger — and humans have been scientifically altering food for centuries — but some people still prefer to avoid the organisms in their diet. Providing them with information that a product is free from GMOs makes more sense than an alarmist declaration that such organisms are present.