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To Label to Not to Label, That is the Question

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Whether ’tis nobler to require labels about biotechnology on food products or to allow a voluntary system of labeling food products… With apologies to the Bard, this is the question that is getting considerable debate among farm groups, food companies, retailers, government agencies, lawmakers, and activist groups. There is plenty of emotion, money and politics involved, with facts and research being largely ignored. While on the surface this may look like a fight over biotechnology, in reality, it is a fight between the free market and big government domination.

Last week 4 U.S. lawmakers and 200 organizations, many with a financial stake in the outcome, delivered a letter to President Obama demanding new federal labeling regulations on food products with genetically-modified ingredients. The action follows the defeat of state referendums to require such labels in California and Washington. This is just the latest skirmish in a war that has been raging for years. While likely to generate some rhetoric, political observers on Capitol Hill say there is very little chance any federal legislation will be acted upon in the foreseeable future.

Yet, it is an issue in which agriculture has a stake. Biotechnology is — and will continue to be — a major part of food production in the US and worldwide and may be our only hope to meet the food demands of the future.  But, as I said, the principle issue here is not biotechnology but the preservation of the free market. “Mandatory labeling of GM foods fails every justification for requiring them: scientific, economic, legal, and most of all, common sense,” said Jeff Stier with the National Center for Public Policy Research. Stier points out that, if companies want to produce food free of biotechnology, they can do so and are free to label those foods as GMO-free, “Mandatory labeling of safe products represents a classic case of rent-seeking; this is an effort to assert political influence at the expense of consumers and responsible farmers for the sole benefit of those seeking the labels.”

We are seeing signs that the free market is working in this area. Several major food companies have announced they are removing some biotech ingredients from their products in response to a small, but vocal, effort by some consumer organizations. In some cases, the companies are labeling their products “GMO FREE,” in other cases they are not. These are voluntary actions and present consumers with a choice when they make their food decisions.  The American Farm Bureau Federation and the USDA support this approach. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Villsack stated last week that he was not in favor of a mandatory label approach.

So, who is behind the push for mandatory labels? According to the letter that was sent the President, the groups supporting the effort reads like a who’s who radical environmental and consumer groups: Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth U.S., the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and the Environmental Working Group. Free-market and middle-of-the road groups do not appear to be represented. Companies behind the effort are those who have a vested interest in villainizing biotechnology. They include: Ben and Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farm, Amy’s Kitchen, Eden Foods, Odin Brewing, and others.

These groups are defining the issue as a food safety issue and a consumer’s right to know issue — neither of which are relevant here. As Stier points out, “Genetically modified foods, already consumed widely by American consumers, haven’t made anyone sick.” Consumers do have the right to know if the food they are buying is safe and that ingredients are in the food. But since biotechnology in no way changes the food product, requiring this information does not fall into this category.  If companies want to voluntarily label their food or remove biotech products, they should have the right to do so but not be forced to.

To those who advocate for mandatory biotech labels I say, in the words of William Shakespeare, “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed!”

 By Gary Truitt