On the ballot for Washington voters this fall is Initiative 522, a measure that, if passed, will require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are a really good thing. But it’s also important that they be clearly labeled for shoppers.
Though, first, an introduction to GMOs is probably in order.
Plant genes modify themselves on a regular basis, resulting in the random mutations that have enabled the diversity and adaptability of living things. And for thousands of years, farmers have presided over this process and accelerated it in order to get better yields.
The GMO crops in question are made very differently, though. Scientists engineer these crops for results that would never happen naturally – corn that’s resistant to a particular pesticide, cassava with extra protein and iron, or tobacco that delivers vaccines.Wow!
These crops could transform farming and nutrition in developing countries, where, for instance, ‘golden rice’ fortified with Vitamin A could save millions from malnutrition and thousands from death.
These crops are also referred to as ‘transgenic’ because they are engineered by splicing genes from other plant species. The first genetically modified product put on the market, a tomato engineered for a longer shelf life, flopped quickly in the mid-1990s because it tasted bland and wasn’t easily shipped.
The market has since adopted a great number of genetically modified plants, and, without much fanfare, they are ingredients in most processed foods.
There is concern among many shoppers and consumer groups about whether these products are safe or healthy to eat. Thankfully, there is no evidence validating that fear.
A September editorial in Scientific American lamented the health scare caused by efforts to label GMO foods: “Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health.”
Seattle Times columnist Bruce Ramsey, after listing contributors to the pro-522 campaign, such as Whole Foods and Dr. Bronner’s, notes that their efforts look like “an organic-food industry effort to impose a label on its competitors.”
So labeling them will perpetuate an unfair stigma. Shoppers might see it as a warning label and avoid them for no good reason.
It would be a shame for unfounded health concerns to sink the GMO ship. But the one-sided debate about health is still not a good reason to withhold information from consumers by letting GMOs go unlabeled.
Shoppers with a socioeconomic cause, while a smaller group than the one with health concerns, should have the information they need to exercise their conscience.
It’s the same support that ingredient listing gives to vegetarians and vegans who want to avoid animal products, and that country of origin labeling gives to those who want to support domestic manufacturing.
There are a number of reasons other than personal health that people would want to avoid GMOs.
The genetic codes of GMOs are subject to intellectual property law, which means that farmers must buy seeds year after year from the patent-owning corporations rather than using the ones that their plants bear.
GMOs are also shockingly novel on an ecological scale, and many environmentalists worry about their effect on ecosystems that could be destroyed by rapid change.
Capitalism can be morally empowering if people can just know what they’re buying, and a simple label will do that for GMOs.
The agribusiness corporations that produce these products, and not a simple majority of voters, have the responsibility of convincing the public that GMOs are safe, healthy and ethically produced. And if the huge donations made to oppose I-522 say anything, it’s that these businesses have money to spare for public relations and responsible stewardship.
In general, more labeling sets a healthy precedent. Except for certain corporate executives, we would all benefit from making more informed choices when shopping, especially for food. I-522 could be part of a greater movement to make farming and shopping happier and more responsible for everyone.