Required Reading With Your Breakfast of Champions

What's in a label? As someone who opposes forcing tobacco companies Altria and Lorillard to print ridiculously graphic labels on their cigarette packs warning of the dangers of smoking, why would I support requiring food companies to identify whether or not their feedstock was engineered in a laboratory?

The difference between smoking and GMO labeling lies in how information can be conveyed. It doesn't matter whether it's a Marlboro or a Newport, smoking is generally going to negatively impact your health. Not always, of course, but there's more than a casual relationship between smoking and cancer, emphysema, and other diseases. Most people, if not everyone, are aware of the health risks involved in the activity, one which they still pick up voluntarily. 

Not so with eating genetically modified foods. You can't tell from looking at your bowl of Wheaties or Corn Flakes that the wheat and corn seed used to grow the crops that are processed into your breakfast have had their DNA rejiggered by Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )  or Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  )  not only to resist drought and harmful insects, but also to resist Monsanto's deadly Roundup herbicide.

It's not enough to see "organic" on a product's label and think you're eating GMO-free foods. The crops may have been grown organically, but the seed itself may have been genetically altered. Being able to pick up a box and decide whether you still want to eat something lab-modified is important, just as knowing the dangers of smoking and still choosing to do so is part of an individual's freedom.

More than 90% of the soybean crops planted in the U.S. have had their DNA altered, as has 86% of the country's corn crop. More than half of our sugar supply comes from sugar beets, 95% of which  are grown from Monsanto seed. In short, Monsanto may own our food supply

Yet it and other GM seed makers such as Dow and Syngenta don't think it's important enough for you to have that information readily available. It's why they and food companies spent millions fighting against a California GM labeling measure.

Recently, General Mills' (NYSE: GIS  ) CEO explained that he thought GM foods were safe, so that ought to be good enough for you -- though the California proposition was not so inconsequential that the company wasn't willing to spend $1 million to help defeat it. While I agree that a patchwork of state labeling laws is overly burdensome on business, it shouldn't preclude companies from taking the initiative to label products nationally on their own.

General Mills could, after all, source its grains from farmers who practice sustainable farming; instead it chooses to source from the agri-giants who fill their cereals with GM grains. The real reason the cereal maker doesn't want you to know its cereals have been genetically modified might be because it knows a lot of consumers really don't want to eat lab-altered food. Management fears consumers will stop buying their cereals and generate a backlash that will rise up against their brand and the billions it generates for investors.

The government requires cigarette makers to inform smokers of the health risks. It requires caloric data on restaurant menus. It says we have a right to know of the chemicals surrounding us in our environment. But when it comes to the very thing that keeps us alive, the food we put into our bodies, the profits of Monsanto, Dow, and General Mills are seen as more important than identifying the risks that genetic modification of seeds present to our food supply.

Information is power, but only if you have access to it. And that you can put in your pipe and smoke.

Altria has been the best-performing stock of the past 50 years, but as the number of smokers in the U.S. continues to steadily decline, is Altria still a buy today? To find out whether everyone's love-to-hate dividend stock is a savvy investment choice or a hazard to your portfolio, simply click here now for access to The Motley Fool's premium research report on the company.


Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2013, at 9:05 PM, Farmhound wrote:

    Mr. Duprey, another one of your anti-Monsanto rants. Come clean with the Foolish readers. Who is backing your ill-informed rants against one of the greatest companies in the world? Do you even know what it is to which you douth protest too much? If so it doesn't appear in your tirades. I can't believe that we in the foolish world have to see your constant manifestos against legitimate successful companies. Maybe Foolish Blog is the most correct term.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2013, at 7:32 AM, TMFCop wrote:

    Farmhound,

    It's no secret I'm not exactly fond of Monsanto's toying with grains, but you should also make the distinction that while I personally don't want to eat GMO foods -- and I'd like to know when I do -- I don't advocate Monsanto be forbidden from doing what it's doing. I'm saying that consumers should be allowed to be aware that their foods have been altered.

    Monsanto has been and could continue to be a great investment. Just like I don't think people should smoke, doesn't mean I'd try to put tobacco companies out of business. There's a big difference in raising awareness and in imposing my will on the marketplace.

    It's like saying people shouldn't be made aware of the dangers of smoking. Altria has been a great investment over the years but if we tell people they might get cancer from smoking, it might not be so great anymore.

    So it seems to me you've become too emotionally tied to your investment in Monsanto that you're unable to allow dissenting voices to be heard. There are no factually incorrect statements in what I've said; so why would you be afraid to have people know the seeds have been altered by Monsanto? Because, as I pointed out in my article, there's a fear of the backlash it would cause by consumers, and that great investment might not be so great in the future.

    Thanks for reading regardless.

    Rich

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2013, at 8:07 AM, dockofthebay wrote:

    Monsanto has too many "friends in high places," so the federal government is unlikely to require labeling of GMOs. However, success will come if enough individual states pass legislation requiring the labeling. State's fear of Monsanto lawsuits has been holding that back, but the day will come when the dominoes start falling for Monsanto.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2013, at 8:31 AM, dockofthebay wrote:

    Well, I spoke too soon. The US Senate has voted to prohibit states from enacting any legislation that would require GMO labeling within that state.

    It looks as if Monsanto controls the government with regard to GMO food policy. We have a right to know what is in the food that we eat, unless Monsanto and our government tell us that we don't.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2013, at 1:23 PM, HillCountryDungn wrote:

    Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides are not "deadly" (your word) except to growing green vegetation and only if contacted directly on the leaves from the sprayer. As soon as the water diluent evaporates, the chemical decomposes into innocuous molecules, readying the area immediately suitable for planting even before the leafy weeds begin to deteriorate.

    Even the organic mavens in the USDA in our area explain that this is the least toxic (except directly applied on green growing leaves) of any pesticide. The increased yields in high population countries have made subsistence farmers more efficient and have lowered incidence of starvation among the population.

    If the customer has the right to be informed of the ancestry of the crop, he has a right to the facts about the real impact of the modifications. Unfortunately, the Frankenfood reputation is "out there," needlessly depressing sales of harmless GM foods.

    I am not connected with any food or chemical company, but I'm a licensed chemical engineer with an understanding of chemical toxicity.

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