Genetically modified food labelling

By Tamara Cottle

For most of human history, the way we have eaten hasn’t changed much. Hunting and gathering has been the predominant food system employed for most of the 250,000 years of human existence. Agriculture came into practice roughly 10,000 years ago. Only 16 years ago, a new and revolutionary product started appearing on people’s plates. Unbeknownst to them, the new foods being eaten were spliced in a lab with genes from unlikely sources. A tomato contained DNA from arctic flounder and corn was designed with pest-resistant bacteria. It was the dawn of a new era of food, but everyone was kept in the dark.

Today, most Americans are still unaware of the genetically modified foods they are eating. The Centre for Food Safety, a non-profit public interest group, estimates that 45 per cent of corn and 75 per cent of soybean in the U.S. are genetically modified. Also, most processed foods, which are ubiquitous in the U.S. and Canada, contain GM ingredients. Because most Americans eat a highly processed, corn- and soybean-rich diet, they should have a right to know whether their ketchup, corn chips and salsa are derived from GM sources. 

So far, the onus is on organic food producers to certify and label themselves separately from the non-organic suppliers. Certification is an arduous process that costs anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. There are many organic food producers who can’t afford to be certified, creating confusion in the market and impacting consumer choice.

The logic of the current food labelling system is completely backwards. It is the GM foods that should be labelled while non-GM and organic foods should enjoy the freedom they have historically had. This is why a new California ballot measure, which will be voted on in November, should be supported.

Proposition 37, also known as the ‘right to know’ initiative, would mandate labelling of GM foods. If it passes, California would be the first state in the U.S. to require GM labelling. A precedent like this could spread to other states and Canada.

What seems like a reasonable course of action in a country known for its democratic values, Prop 37 has become a lightning rod for opposition. The ‘vote no on Prop 37’ campaign has received substantial monetary contributions from some of the world’s largest chemical companies. Monsanto has contributed $7.1 million, while DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta, DOW and BASF have added a total of $19 million to the no on Prop 37 pot. Other significant contributors include Pepsico, Nestlé, Coca-Cola North America, General Mills, Del Monte Foods, Kellogg Company, Hershey Company and Campbell Soup Company. 

The main contention reported by those who oppose Proposition 37 is that it will instil unnecessary fears in consumers and may lead to increased food costs to customers due to imposed labelling requirements for companies. 

There are a few problems with this position. Firstly, the conjecture that GM labelling will create fear in the public assumes that customers are irrational. Whether or not this is true, the insinuation speaks volumes about the companies taking this stance. It seems like companies opposed to Prop 37 are suggesting that they know better than the public and should be the only party privy to information about the foods they are selling. Instead of investing in education around the benefits of GM foods, these companies assume a paternalistic role in order to stymie the democratic process.

Secondly, the cost to customers incurred by GM food labelling may be offset by cheaper prices of foods from organic companies. Organic food prices would go down because farmers would no longer need to pay for certification to distinguish themselves from the chemical food companies that, so far, have all the privileges. 

The real issue these big name agrichemical and food companies have is the erosion of their bottom line. In the European Union, where GM food labelling is mandatory, there has been a reduction in GM food consumption. Europeans are generally unreceptive to biotechnology in their food and this is demonstrated in their market. It is understandable that GM food companies would want to invest in campaigns aligned with their financial interests, but the interests and rights of customers should always trump profit margins.

Proposition 37 is the first rational move a state legislature has made about GM foods. Transparency in food sources is paramount to consumer rights and the burden should not be on the farmers, who practice a thousand year tradition, but on the producers of novel foods. 

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