G.M.O-K?

Is knowledge of genetically-modified organisms more persuasive than fear based on their overall lack of transparency?  That’s the question that seems to be lost on the lobbying coalition working to defeat efforts like those in Vermont to mandate the labeling of genetically modified food. The corporate processed-food lobby led by Monsanto and Kellogg’s claims consumers “may demand companies remove bioengineered ingredients/G.M.O.s from products…lead[ing] to extreme disruptions in the nation’s food supply chain that could take many years to overcome.”

There are so many things wrong with the assertions made by the opponents of the labeling movement it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the egregious assumptions made by an outfit called “John Dunham and Associates Economic Research Firm” (Dunham being the former senior economist with tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris). Here’s an excerpt of their “research”:

Given consumers’ lack of science-based information on the subject, they may demand companies remove bioengineered ingredients/G.M.O.s from products, according to the study. It is possible 100% of products eventually would be reformulated to be non-bioengineered.

“This would lead to extreme disruptions in the nation’s food supply chain that could take many years to overcome,” the study said.

If only a small percentage of food manufacturers were able to switch to non-bioengineered ingredients, major costs still would be associated with the Vermont law.

“Companies would be forced to segregate G.M.O. and non-G.M.O. grains, for example, and document them as such, leading to higher wholesaling costs,” the study said. “Food manufacturers would be required to produce multiple versions of products, which would increase overall production costs as run-lengths would decrease. Also, a system with smaller volume sales of more product lines would lead to higher wholesaling costs as more trucks and equipment would be required to handle the smaller batches.”

The costs incurred by American food processors could lead to a 1.76% increase in average food prices nationwide in the first year and as much as 1.61% ongoing.

“These costs are incurred by consumers in every state and the District of Columbia and could be as high as $723 per household in the first year and $13,250 per household over the next 20 years, a cost which is highly dependent on the assumption that non-G.M.O. ingredients will continue to be expensive substitutes for G.M.O.-based products.”

 Wait, what? Did you just multiply $723 by 20 years and factor in slightly diminishing costs based on efficiency advancements in non-GMO cultivation? Why on earth would you use a hypothetical figure projected out for 20 years?! What relevance does that have in the 2016 debate? That “assumption” that non-GMO ingredients will continue to be expensive substitutes is—we might as well define it—an assumption that a) necessity will not drive innovation, b) consumer choice will work against companies that use GMOs and c) said companies will be unable to adapt to a business model that requires transparency. How sad of an assumption is that? No wonder they’re fighting against change.

Further opposition to mandated labeling is provided in a paper sponsored by the Corn Refiner’s Association (hmmm) wherein the authors claim “labeling would provide consumers with additional information but higher food prices would make consumers, especially low-income consumers, worse off.” This asserts that a) “worse off” would not include being better informed and b) consumers would not continue to choose genetically modified food. This is an interesting jump in logic, given that most people already eat genetically engineered food, despite that verified non-GMO alternatives are continuing to flourish.

Say you are a consumer (you are); and you really like Twinkies (you probably do); …is a label alerting you to the fact that the cornstarch has been genetically modified really going to change your behavior next time you’re craving that spongy cake-and-creamy goodness? Of course not. And those in favor of labeling have made it easy for food manufacturers to disclose by asking relatively little of them ranging from an asterisk, to a parenthesis to even a catch-all statement. That’s not too much to ask.

Having, I believe, thoroughly made my point about the reasonableness of mandating labeling, I’d like to point out that in my own consumer decisions and as a bioethicist, I am not in any way summarily against genetically modifying food. I believe the fear-based contention to GMOs has arisen largely due to the lack of transparency these labeling laws are striving to change. So, counterpoint food lobby: let people know what’s going on with their food, let them see it’s nothing to be afraid of, and maybe, just maybe, the anti-GMO hysteria will diminish. Win-win.

-Tyler

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