For the second time, blue-state voters have defeated a ballot initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods. In 2012, it was California; this week, it was Washington, where a labeling referendum lost 55 percent to 45 percent.
Advocates of labeling may as well suspend similar efforts in other states, because it’s clear that, when it comes to persuading voters, they’re no match for Big Food. In Washington, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto Co., DuPont Co. and others raised $22 million to fight the measure, almost triple the $8.4 million collected by Whole Foods Markets Inc., Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, the Center for Food Safety and other advocates of labeling. In California, the food industry similarly outspent its opposition $46 million to $9 million.
This is too bad, because labeling would give consumers more information about what’s in their food, and polls suggest it’s something almost everyone wants. More than 90 percent of U.S. consumers favor requirements for labels on foods that have had their genetic makeup altered — whether to make corn tolerant of herbicides or to create plants that can secrete their own bacterial insecticides.
But it isn’t the worst thing that could happen to food safety, simply because GM foods aren’t dangerous. Those self-secreted insecticides, for instance, are safe. And claims that GM foods cause cancer, genetic defects, infertility or obesity aren’t supported by research. The Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization have all concluded that that GM foods pose no health risk.
What’s more, genetic modification, by protecting crops from extreme weather, improves food security in the developing world.
The questions about GM crops — whether they may have a harmful effect on useful insects, for example, and whether pests may build up resistance — are important ones. But they have been publicly undermined by some labeling advocates’ fear-mongering.
The food industry also raises a legitimate worry that diverse state labeling laws could force them to make separate packages for foods in different states.
Given the obstacles to labeling, and its limited benefits, it would be better to refocus efforts to improve the U.S. food supply on issues more worrying for human health. Already, the FDA is proposing to eliminate artificial trans fats from the food supply, and it should be encouraged to see that that happens. The same agency should also be pressed to lower the volume of antibiotics fed to animals in meat production.
As for genetically altered foods, perhaps public preferences and competition will lead to voluntary labeling. Whole Foods has said it will require GM labels on products in its stores by 2018. And maybe if the food industry spent the money now devoted to defeating labeling initiatives on telling the public about the benefits of using science to improve and expand the world’s food supply this whole issue might just go away.