October was a busy month for activists aiming to raise awareness about labeling food made from genetically modified ingredients. First, three pro-organic groups simultaneously launched campaigns to demand genetically modified foods be identified when sold. These campaigns included a march from New York to Washington, D.C. Two groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to label foods that contain GM ingredients, and the third called on President Obama to follow through on such labeling.
Then, the Center for Science in the Public Interest organized its “Food Day” event, which was designed to raise awareness for sustainably produced food. Although not a vegan movement, CSPI offered six key points on its Web site. The points are goals that are meant to change the way Americans eat.
All of the movements seem to stem from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s willingness to bring pro-organic groups to the discussion last spring.
October’s rallies, public relations stunts and petitions seem at odds with the cohesiveness Vilsack was seeking when he brought all of agriculture to the table. The question remains if all of the segments of the agriculture industry can support each other. Even between the row crop, specialty crops and livestock producers there is contention. See page 4.
However, no issue seems to be quite as hot or have as much national attention as whether to label foods that are produced with genetically-modified ingredients. Fortunately, the State Department’s assistant secretary for economic, energy and business affairs, said that such labeling would scare consumers away from those foods. And that’s the crux of the issue.
Organic groups say that organically-produced foods are labeled. Why shouldn’t GM foods be labeled? Organic labeling hasn’t scared consumers.
However, their argument is based around the greater acceptance of the word “organic” versus “genetically modified.” They’ve long capitalized on the misunderstanding of what organic truly means. Organic groups have not jumped to change the assumptions.
They are probably concerned that people in food deserts would be frightened away from purchasing healthy food they do have available since they won’t understand what genetically modified means. Will they no longer purchase cheaply produced food because it’s genetically modified? Short on money, will they drive 10, 20 or 30 miles to reach a grocery store that carries labeled organic produce?
Organic groups have criticized that the public would be scared of GM foods. Instead, they frame the debate as a right to know issue. Perhaps there is weight to that argument. Food choice is personal. Knowledge is power.
Secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, the organic groups would love to scare people away from eating food with GM ingredients. They would love to have every-day consumers vote with their dollars and cause the downfall of companies that support agricultural biotechnology.
However, what may happen if biotech foods are labeled is that consumers don’t really care. There will be some who care such as the mother buying baby food who already has manufacturers touting healthy ingredient to them.
If GM food is in many foods that consumers have been eating for years without any detrimental effects, won’t most consumers wonder what the fuss is all about? In the end, whether food is labeled when it contains GM ingredients, perhaps the end result will be the same—little to no impact on the markets. But a few organic and pro-local food groups will be happy they can point their fingers and show the world how many foods contain these ingredients. In the end, their goal may prove the point for the safety of agricultural biotechnology.