Human Exceptionalism

Labeling Genetically Altered Food is Good For Consumers

When Monsanto developed bovine growth hormone, the FDA determined it was safe.  Fine and dandy. But when some milk producers labeled their food as being BGH-free, why Monsanto sued claiming that such labeling implied that their product was unsafe, and hence a form of defamation.  In reality, Monsanto was bullying and eventually they lost that effort. In fact, I saw some BGH-free milk at the store just the other day. It cost about fifty cents more than the non labeled variety.  I bought the cheaper milk because I don’t think BGH is unsafe, but the choice was mine, not Monsanto’s.

I think the same principle applies to food that has been genetically engineered.  It is almost surely safe.  But why shouldn’t consumers have the right to know what they are putting in their bodies?  The question, is whether the FDA should require labeling.  Forbes has run pro and con opinion articles on that question.  Writing for the pro side was Michelle Maisto. From “With GMO Labels Still Missing, Look for the Opposite:”

There’s a lot of debate about whether or not it’s safe to eat GM foods, but what’s being argued for is simply that they be labeled. We’re living in a time where it’s illegal not to tell consumers if a product is made in a room where nuts are handled, but food can be tinkered with at the DNA level and no one is obligated to say so…Likewise, until companies are required to label GM foods, we can be savvier and more insistent about our food choices. There are increasing numbers of companies that are happy to announce that they don‘t use GM ingredients, and foods with the USDA Organic seal are prohibited from using genetic engineering.

Well, some people are very allergic to nuts, indeed, the condition can be life-threatening, so that labeling is much more important than GM foods, since there is no evidence of which I am aware that such altered food is unsafe.  Even so, some people don’t want it in their bodies.  Why not give them the information empowering them to make it so?

Writing for the con side was Henry Miller.  From “Labeling of Biotech Foods is Uneccesary and Unconstitutional:”

Maisto’s latest Forbes article calls for compulsory, government-mandated labels to indicate foods that have been genetically improved. Yet the foods that Maisto wants to target are those manipulated with the most modern and precise gene-splicing techniques — and only those techniques. Such labels would not only put groundless fears ahead of science — promoting ignorance and hysteria among consumers — they would also be unconstitutional.

Product labeling that conveys essential information is important, but mandatory labeling of gene-spliced foods is a bad idea.  First, it implies risks for which there is no evidence.  Second, it flies in the face of worldwide scientific consensus about the appropriate basis of regulation, which focuses palpable risks, not the use of certain techniques.  Third, it would push the costs of product development into the stratosphere.  Finally, the requirement would constitute a punitive tax on a superior technology.

I really do get sick of “pro science” types conflating science issues with policy issues.  They are not synonymous even when scientific information is involved. Hence, I don’t care about the “scientific consensus” about labeling because that is not a question of science. Even if GM foods are utterly safe, policy makers can decide people have the right to know so they can choose whether to put it on their plates.

Me, I could go either way on mandatory labeling.  I don’t think it would be wrong so long as it required the conveyance of accurate information. On the other hand, if labeling is not made mandatory, that opens the door for a market in non modified food that could open a very profitable market through voluntary labeling. Either way, it seems to me that consumers win.

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