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.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.