Why We Won't See GMO Labeling Any Time Soon

In early November, residents in the state of Washington decided they didn't need food companies to label products that had genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in them. These organisms, whose DNA has been changed in labs to promote higher yields and withstand certain chemicals, have been the subject of much debate lately.

The fact that the state's initiative for mandatory labeling was turned down was nothing short of a miracle. As recently as September, polls showed residents favoring the measure two to one. But a major advertising and education blitz by those opposing the law changed things dramatically. Currently, the "No" votes outnumber the "Yes" votes by a 51-49 ratio (the state votes via absentee ballot).

In 2012, a similar initiative in California yielded the same results.

Given these two decisions, and the dynamics of a food industry dominated by big agribusiness, I don't think we'll be seeing mandatory GMO labeling any time soon. While I could be wrong -- and would actually be quite happy to be wrong -- until scientific evidence shows that eating GMOs is dangerous, things won't be changing.

Science vs. Emotion
The most difficult thing about this debate is the fact that GMOs haven't been around for that long. The first GM seeds for sale in the United States were approved just 20 years ago. It wasn't until the last decade that the use of such seeds became so commonplace. Now, GMOs are present in as much as 70% of all processed foods available in grocery stores.

As with a lot of new inventions, it's impossible to tell if there are long-term consequences of eating GMOs until enough time passes. And since the FDA and USDA have already sanctioned their use, there's no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Source: Rosalee Yagihara, via Wikimedia Commons 

One study came out of France claiming that GMOs caused cancer in lab rats, but that study was widely discredited in the scientific community. As it stands now, emotion is running high against the use of GM seeds -- primarily because of the visceral relationship we have with the food we eat.

But that emotion can be canceled out with repeated advertisements that point back to science. And it can't be denied that the main funders of the campaign in Washington -- Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , Pepsi (NYSE: PEP  ) , Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) , and DuPont (NYSE: DD  )  -- will likely fight this battle until science proves otherwise.

Why all hope is not lost
As the Seattle Times editorial board put it when it came out against mandatory labeling: "The issue for proponents of I-522 seems to be less about outcomes -- the products themselves -- but rather finding the modern processes offensive."

It's unfortunate that in this time and place, a product and the effects of how it's produced can be so disconnected. But the board is right: the vast majority of reasonable opposition to GMOs comes from the effects of using them -- monospeciation, consolidation of food power into the hands of a few, and generally tinkering with Mother Nature -- instead of reliable information that the consumption of GMOs is dangerous.

But this isn't new. People buy products labeled "USDA Organic" and "Kosher" not because there's overwhelming scientific evidence that it has superior nutrient quality. Rather, the production of such food adheres to the values of those who are consuming the food. While adding another layer of government oversight into determining what constitutes "GMO-free" will likely cause some headaches, I see this as a much more likely path in the labeling debate.

Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM  ) has already announced the GMOs will need to be labeled by 2018 in its stores. I wouldn't be surprised if other grocers follow suit -- not by labeling those with GMOs, but those without.

Will any of this matter years from now?

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Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (9)

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 November 15, 2013, at 2:38 PM, watson14 wrote:

    I can't understand why Big Agra doesn't want their products labeled - maybe shoppers would choose a non GMO product? What's the harm in a label?

  • Report this Comment On November 15, 2013, at 2:39 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    "...and generally tinkering with Mother Nature."

    But haven't farmers been "tinkering with Mother Nature" since there have been farmers? Artificial selection, and hybridization, immediately come to mind.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2013, at 5:19 AM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    Pondee nailed it. There's no such thing as a non-GMO when it comes to food.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2013, at 8:55 AM, rosie wrote:

    I cannot believe people allowed a corporate media blitz to change their right for labeling...simple labeling. Why are the companies so against a person's right to know the contents and means of production of a food we are paying for and ingesting? Watch some of the many documentaries out there to see how our food source is being bought and controlled by megacorporations bent on higher and higher profits, with little respect to long term, let alone short term, health for the people eating the food. To say there is no NON-GMO food anywhere is simply political/corporate spin created by people paid lots of money by those corporations to change the mind and confuse the public... it's shameful. A naturally "genetically modified" that changes over eons due to nature and it pressures is VERY different than a plant in a laboratory being modified for profit by people who don't care about anything as much as they care about money.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2013, at 1:41 PM, todamo13 wrote:

    GMOs are mashed together in a laboratory in a haphazard manner that leaves all sorts of hidden collateral damage to the DNA. For instance, one technique is the "gene gun" which blasts the target DNA with tiny pellets of gold coated with the foreign DNA in the hopes that the new DNA will lodge somewhere that it will have roughly the desired effect.

    Needless to say, DNA is fragile and incredibly complex, and this imprecise shotgun method causes scrambling of the code in ways that won't become apparent until animals and people start getting sick after eating the resulting crops. And the pile of "anecdotal" evidence of this harm continues to mount, despite the corporate spin to the contrary.

    Note that this is absolutely, and utterly different than the natural breeding process which uses the organism's own reproductive process within its own species to gradually select for desired traits over time. There's a reason many refer to GMOs as "Franken-foods."

    We really need to differentiate between corporate "science," which exists to pursue profit, and actual science which should be the pursuit of truth (hopefully for the benefit of life on earth).

    GMO marketing is just like the "scientists" on the cigarette industry's payroll who claimed smoking isn't addicting and doesn't cause cancer.

    Does that mean that if we are people who believe in science that we have to accept that cigarette smoking doesn't cause cancer just because some corporate shills say so? Quite the same as the situation with GMOs.

    Unfortunately, in the time it takes to get the required mountains of evidence of harm to defeat the corporate misinformation campaign, much harm will have already been done...

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2013, at 1:48 PM, Oliviasvineyard wrote:

    What on earth is wrong with being able to decide for yourself what you eat. Try to find apple juice that isn't coming from China.It will take you many twists and turns of the bottle to find it! I'm sorrymbut I do not want to feed my grandkids Chinese apple juice when it is grown and produced locally all over America.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2013, at 1:48 PM, Leenb3 wrote:

    "Residents in the state of Washington decided....The fact that the state's initiative for mandatory labeling was turned down was nothing short of a miracle." Washington got suckered in to believing the propaganda they were continually bombarded with in the way of phone calls, ads, and mailers, to the tune of $22 million. Opponents just didn't have the kind of money to fight Monsanto and the big corporations like Kelloggs and Pepsi. They were defeated in Calif. for the same reason. Maine and Connecticut have passed labeling laws. Just because the FDA & USDA have put their stamp of approval on GMOs means nothing - look at their approval of aspartame. They allow many ingredients in our processed foods which are banned in many other countries. And "people buy products labeled 'USDA Organic'" because they don't want pollute the environment with or to eat pesticides and chemicals, as well as, GMOs. I'll use my consumer power/money to support grocers like Whole Foods and companies like Annie's who is partnering with the Non-GMO Project to verify their products don’t contain GMOs and is also a founding partner of the Just Label It campaign, an organization actively engaged at the federal level in pushing for national GMO labeling standards.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2013, at 2:34 PM, tirman wrote:

    The scary truth is that few if any crops – including those grown organically – have been “proven” to be safe. Over the centuries farmers and breeders have selected the crops we eat, not for long-term human health, but to make a profit.

    Corporate agribusiness would rather us not know that plants naturally produce all kinds of chemicals to defend themselves against insects, fungi and other challenges from their environments. Alarmingly, many of those natural compounds actually have been proven to be carcinogenic (http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/06/synthetic-v-n....

    Why stop with GMO labeling? If we are truly concerned about “food safety” we should require systematic testing of all foods we eat. Any foods found to contain unsafe chemicals, natural or not, should be labeled as unsafe.

    Don’t think for one minute that Nature is benign. Arsenic, asbestos lead, mercury and so many other ‘natural’ compounds prove otherwise.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2013, at 10:08 AM, cmalek wrote:

    As pondee619 said, genetic engineering has been going on for thousands of years. Animals and plants bred to be more disease, weather and pest resistant, to produce more meat per animal and more grain per acre.

    Any chemical, any food product in sufficiently large amounts is harmful to humans. As an example, in the 1980 there was a hysteria about Alar sprayed on apples causing cancer. In 1989 Alar was banned from use on food products. The inconvenient truth is that it would take the consumption of 5,000 gallons of apple juice a day to cause cancer. The consumption of 5,000 gallons of ANYTHING per day would cause serious, if not fatal, problems long before cancer set in.

    BTW - GMO foods are a first world problem. In the third world where starvation is rampant, ANY food is welcome.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2013, at 12:32 PM, tirman wrote:

    I agree with the statement that genetic engineering has been going on for thousands of years. My point is that this activity has never been directed toward making foods better for long-term human health but toward making money (aka profits) for food producers. I also agree with the notion that fear of GMOs may be misguided and the technology has potential benefit to society – reduced use of pesticides and Golden Rice for example.

    If people – opponents of GMOs for example – are truly honest in their concern for food safety then they should take a rational view of all foods. While there’s no documented evidence of harm from consuming GMO foods, there is ample evidence of risk from non GMO foods (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2404325) like toxic potatoes and celery that had to be taken off the market. Those were obvious because of their severity – there’s little doubt systematic testing would reveal many others.

    If we truly want a risk-free society then we should be willing to bear the cost and confusion of rational evidence-based food labeling – even if it ends up on the shelves of Fresh Market and Whole Foods.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2013, at 4:04 PM, SIRIking wrote:

    There are no documents showing GMO foods are unhealthy is because extremely powerful well thought out strategy by people who run those evil empires conduct those testing and documentations. Anything that is chemicaly engineered by man is unhealthy period! Natural chemicals is ok but in moderation.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2013, at 9:23 PM, cluckgochicken wrote:

    The problem with GMO's is it makes crops more resistant to pesticides, so that farmers can use more pesticides. Gmo's may or may not be harmful, but we know that pesticides cause all sorts of neurological and other medical issues. There was no evidence that Thalidmyide was harmful back in the 60's, but it caused hundreds of severe birth defects.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2013, at 10:23 PM, blablableh wrote:

    Is this a new thing for MF? Take political articles and insert some names of companies that might be affected and the post the political article on MF? Why is this political article posted on MF and not a more appropriate place like Huffington Post or dailykos?

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2013, at 3:49 PM, SIRIking wrote:

    cluckgochicken,

    I have issue with with every single GMO food product that exists. I will ask you a question and please do reply to it if you come back to this article. Why wont 1 of scum of thee earth monsanto not let government agencys test their GMO seeds and all products? I will give you a link to a mini documentary.

    http://www.seedsoffreedom.info/watch-the-film/watch-the-film...

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