The GMO Labeling Debate

By Keith Kloor | May 12, 2013 11:40 pm

There are two camps that favor labeling genetically modified [GM] foods:

1) The “Right to Know” people, who say they just want to know what’s in their food. This is a specious argument. The truth is they think there is something harmful about GMOs. Why else would they feel so strongly about labeling genetically modified foods? Yes, the Just Label it Campaign is couched as a consumer rights issue, but really it’s based on fear. Everybody knows this, so pretending otherwise is silly.

2) The other pro-label camp is comprised of a small minority of pro-biotech people who recognize that the battle for public opinion is lost. The GMO fear-mongers have won–they have successfully framed the argument as a consumer choice issue. So the only sensible thing to do at this point  is to play along and join the labeling bandwagon. As Ramez Naam argued effectively in a recent guest post,

We should label them [GM foods] because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.

From a political and pragmatic standpoint, this makes sense. After all, winning an argument at all costs can be counterproductive, whatever the cause. (The climate concerned who insist on playing whack-a-mole with climate skeptics–instead of picking their battles carefully–have yet to learn this lesson.)  Still, I suspect that many pro-biotech people stand on principle and object to GMO labeling because it implicitly concedes victory to the fear-mongers, which is what one commenter on Naam’s post said

[Just label it] is a disingenuous campaign and everybody knows it. How can we entertain that?! Capitulating on this misses the whole point and reinforces their framing of the issue. It sets a bad precedent.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about GMO labeling. I see right through the naked cynicism of the Right to Know campaign. It is totally disingenuous. On the other hand, as any student of Aikido or Tai Chi knows, redirecting the force of your attacker is an effective tactic. There is a case to be made that a GMO label on foods would neutralize the opposition and eventually pave the way to greater acceptance of biotechnology. Jonathan Gilligan made this argument earlier in the year, saying,

if GM food is labeled as such, I really believe that most consumers will buy it anyway and it will defuse the “what are they trying to hide” line of attack.

I find this to be a compelling argument. And yet, in a Bloomberg column this weekend, Cass Sunstein makes a good case against mandatory GMO labeling. He essentially concludes that science should guide the argument:

In the abstract, it is hard to disagree with the claim that consumers “have a right to know.” But with respect to food, there are countless facts that people might conceivably want to know, and government doesn’t require them to be placed on labels. Unless science can identify a legitimate concern about risks to health or the environment, the argument for compulsory GM labels rests on weak foundations.

I’m curious to hear where people stand on the GMO labeling issue, and whether anyone has changed his or her mind recently (in either direction) and why.

[Image at Label it Yourself website.]

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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