GMO: a Great Many Obfuscations

5 August 2014


The confusing framing of campaigns to label Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) marketed as food
By Rose Waltz-Peters

The debate over GMO labeling is masquerading as a scientific issue, when in fact it has become almost an entirely a philosophical and political one, pitting behemoth corporations against smaller industries and grassroots activists. The state initiatives to mandate GMO labeling that are under consideration and debate around the country are adding yet another facet and layer to the commentary on rights, power, and equality in America.

The Controversy:

Should food that is a genetically engineered (GE) product, or contains ingredients that are, be labeled as such? Is it the right, and within the powers, of state governments to mandate labeling?

The Players:

State governments across the country are facing the question of whether or not labeling should and can be mandated, while under intense pressure and avid campaigning from both sides of the debate. States with particularly heated discussion and legislative action that is either recent or currently being attempted are Vermont, Oregon, Washington, California, Maine, and Connecticut. Across the country, many grassroots consumer groups and concerned citizens are lobbying for labeling, writing petitions, and in some cases, creating and getting signatures for ballot initiatives. These groups are supported by companies in the natural food and products industries, such as Amy’s Kitchen, Nature’s Path, and Dr. Bronner’s, as well as Joseph Mercola, who sells dietary supplements.1 The opposition to labeling is made up of many commercial farmers as well as big-name agribusinesses and grocery producers, such as Monsanto, Syngenta,2 PepsiCo, Nestle, and Coca-Cola.3

The Arguments:

Ideological: To date, there have been no scientifically reputable studies demonstrating that GE foods pose a health risk.4 Anti-labeling advocates use this as their chief argument, claiming that required labels would falsely suggest that there might be something risky about GE food products.5 Those in favor of labeling, while they do not argue with the current science, stand by the precautionary principle.1 They feel that there is simply not yet enough known about GMO technology and products to have confidence in their safety, and that is wiser to avoid them until they are better understood. GE foods have only been on the market since 1994,6 meaning there has been limited time for the long-term effects of eating GE foods to become evident. In the European Union, laws strictly regulating GE foods are primarily based on the precautionary principle because popular consensus is that “where human activities may have damaging effects, decision-makers should not wait for full scientific proof before taking appropriate protective measures,” as Halina Ward, from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, phrased it.7 US consumers drafting ballot initiatives channel these beliefs in their arguments for labeling, saying that there should be a way for consumers to choose whether or not they purchase GE products and to help health officials track consumption of GE products and any related health trends.8

Political: Another piece of the argument over GMO labeling centers around rights. Proponents of labeling measures say that it is consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food so that they can make “informed purchasing decisions.”8 Irradiation1and meats’ countries of origin9 are already labeled, even though they, and many other labeled characteristics of food, have not been directly proven to be hazardous. Opponents of required GMO labeling say that the measures would violate their rights to free speech.10 They also cite labeling requirements’ effects on interstate trade as something that would exceed states’ political powers to create labeling mandates.11 Many opponents argue that if mandated at all, labeling should be under the jurisdiction of the federal government.9

Scientific: As mentioned previously, there have been no scientifically reputable studies, to date, that have demonstrated a clear link between GE seeds and negative impacts on public health. Many feel that more research and longer-term studies are necessary.4 So at least at present, the debate for many rests at this: should current research should be considered sufficient to deem GE products “safe” and to allow them to broadly permeate the food market? And who has the right to make that evaluation and decision?

The Stakes:

The biotechnology industry (in all its permutations) is a multibillion dollar international industry12 controlled by just a few large and powerful companies. GE varieties account for over 90% of the soybeans grown in the US, as well as nearly 90% of the corn, canola, and sugar beets, and 94% of the cotton.13 In 2011, the largest four companies (Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, and Vilmorin) together controlled 58.2% of the global seed market, with Monsanto alone controlling the lion’s share of this with 26% of the market.14 An estimated 60-70% of current processed foods on the market contain GE products,1 and a study done at Cornell of New York state groceries concluded that state-mandated labeling would affect 50-58% of products available in grocery stores.19 Agribusinesses and grocery manufacturers fear that labeling will cause consumers to avoid products containing GE ingredients, decreasing the market for, and profits from, the raw GE crops and the products that GE ingredients go into.5 Businesses could respond to the change in demand by shifting to growing and using non-GE ingredients, but some analysts argue that this would also raise prices, as non-GE crops could be more expensive to cultivate and keep separated from GE crops.9

The natural products companies that are donating to the pro-labeling sides of these campaigns would, presumably, benefit from labeling as an increased number of customers turned to products, such as theirs, that would be free of the GE product labels. Consumers could gain the ability to choose whether or not they purchase GE products.1 However, given the wide variation in what traits crops are modified for, labels would not allow the consumer any specificity in what they avoid;15for example, a consumer might only be most concerned about the presence of the pesticide-like gene in Bt corn and wish to avoid products made from it, but they would have no way of knowing what ingredient(s) in a given product necessitated the label. In terms of giving consumers the ability to be truly informed about foods they purchase, general GMO labeling measures would be a first step. However, some studies, done by Cornell and an independent organization in Washington state, have also warned that food prices in those states would increase,12 in New York by about $400 a year for a family of four.9

Is This a Fair Fight?

The numbers say probably not. The campaigns against GMO labeling are consistently outspending the pro-labeling campaigns by a huge margin.

Multiple polls suggest popular support for labeling,1 and in 2013, 93% of respondents to a New York Times poll supported labeling of GE food products.16 Polls before and after Proposition 37, the 2012 California ballot initiative, indicated that there was and still is popular support for labeling.1,17 And yet at the ballot boxes, after weeks of heavy and expensive campaigning by agribusinesses, these measures are being voted down by very narrow margins and their defeats are accompanied by multi-million-dollar disparities in campaign funding. For example, Proposition 37 in California was defeated in a 51% to 49% popular vote16 after opponents spent $46 million versus proponents’ $9 million,1 while in Washington in 2013, the opposition spent $33 million defeating a labeling measure.18

These defeats demonstrate the continued sway of corporate money, and the media it can buy, on American minds and democracy. However, voters in Jefferson and Josephine counties in Oregon recently enacted anti-GMO legislation, demonstrating that there is the potential for determined citizens to exercise their democratic rights to defeat multi-million dollar oppositions.

  1. Ball, Molly. “Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified.” The Atlantic. 14 May 2014. Web. 11 June 2014.
  2. Zheng, Yuxing. “GMO Measure in Oregon’s Jackson County Draws Big Money, Raises Questions About Local Control.” OregonLive. The Oregonian, 15 May 2014. Web. 11 June 2014.
  3. Mapes, Jeff. “Grocery Manufacturers Disclose Big Donors to Anti-GMO Labeling Campaign in Washington.” OregonLive. The Oregonian, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 June 2014.
  4. Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases. Modern Food Biotechnology, Human Health and Development: An Evidence-Based Study. Rep. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2005. Food Safety: Biotechnology (GM Foods) Publications. World Health Organization, 2005. Web. 16 June 2014.
  5. Monsanto Company. “Labeling Food and Ingredients Developed from GM Seed.” Monsanto. Monsanto Company, Mar. 2013. Web. 16 June 2014.
  6. Bruening, G., and J. M. Lyons. “The Case of the Flavr Savr Tomato.” California Agriculture 54.4 (2000): 6-7. California Agriculture Online. University of California. Web. 16 June 2014.
  7. Kogan, Lawrence A., Esq. EU Regulation, Standardization and the Precautionary Principle: The Art of Crafting a Three- Dimensional Trade Strategy That Ignores Sound Science. Working paper. The National Foreign Trade Council, Aug. 2003. Web. 27 June 2014.
  8. United States. Maine Legislature. H.P. 490 – L.D. 718: An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers’ Right To Know about Genetically Engineered Food. 2013. Maine Legislature Bills. Maine Legislature, 2013. Web. 16 June 2014.
  9. Lesser, William. Costs of Labeling Genetically Modified Food Products In N.Y. State. Rep. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, 2014. Web. 16 June 2014.
  10. Chokshi, Niraj. “Vermont Just Passed the Nation’s First GMO Food Labeling Law. Now It Prepares to Get Sued.” GovBeat. The Washington Post, 9 May 2014. Web. 17 June 2014.
  11. Emord & Associates. Memorandum Re: Vermont Bill H.112 (2013); Act Relating to the Labeling of Food Produced With Genetic Engineering. Issue brief. Washington D.C.: Emord & Associates, 2014. Emord & Associates, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 June 2014.
  12. Gwynne, Peter, and Guy Page. “Biotechnology: North America: Personal Portraits of an Evolving Industry.” Science Magazine 24 Mar. 2000: Web. 17 June 2014. <>.
  13. Marsh, Thomas, Eugene Nester, Janet Beary, Dustin Pendell, B. W. Poovaiah, and Gulhan Unlu. White Paper on Washington State Initiative 522 (I-522): Labeling of Foods Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients. Issue brief. Olympia, WA: Washington State Academy of Science, 2013. Washington Academy of Sciences, 2013. Web. 18 June 2014.
  14. ETC Group. Putting the Cartel Before the Horse… and Farm, Seeds, Soil, Etc.: Who Will Control Agricultural Inputs, 2013? Rep. no. 111. ETC Group, Sept. 2013. Web. 18 June 2014.
  15. Kaste, Martin. “So What Happens If the Movement to Label GMOs Succeeds?” Web log post. Th Salt: What’s on Your Plate. National Public Radio, 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 June 2014.
  16. Kopicki, Allison. “Strong Support for Labeling Modified Foods.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 July 2013. Web. 18 June 2014.
  17. Lake Research Partners. Proposition 37, California Right to Know Initiative Post-Election Survey Analysis – Quick Statistics. Center for Food Safety, Dec. 2012. Web. 18 June 2014.
  18. Anderson, Jennifer. “Oregon Now Epicenter of National GMO Debate.” Portland Tribune. Portland Tribune, 12 June 2014. Web. 18 June 2014.


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