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.
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 (NASDAQ: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?