Crusade or Charade?: What’s Really Motivating Efforts to Mandate GMO-Labeling?

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Because “public-interest” groups cloak themselves with the feel-good mantle of protecting consumers, the environment, animals, etc., the motives of such groups rarely get questioned. But several recent developments show that all too often, activists put their own self-interest before the public’s interest.

Consider, for example, environmental groups’ opposition to a Washington state ballot measure going before voters this fall. Initiative 732 pursues a major environmentalist goal—carbon-emissions reduction—by imposing an excise tax. Revenues from the carbon tax would in turn fund sales, manufacturing, and low-income-household tax cuts. In other words, it’s revenue neutral, and that doesn’t sit well with green activists who see climate change as an effective proxy for a broader ideological goal: expanding government.

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, whose members include such national groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union for Concerned Scientists, prefers that carbon-tax revenue be invested in “clean energy and protecting vulnerable communities.” The director of One America, a member of the Alliance, remarked, “It’s not about reducing carbon. It’s how we do it.” He also stated that if the initiative increased taxes, imposed new regulations, or funded government programs, One America would support it.

Another egregious example of self-interest supplanting the public interest arises from activists’ crusade for warning labels on food items containing biotechnology-derived ingredients, popularly known as “genetically-modified organisms” or “GMOs.” Citing the results of manufactured push polls and petitions, proponents have long declared that consumers want to know if food products contained GMOs.

“Right to know” was the rallying cry behind a 2012 California ballot initiative, Proposition 37. But an August 12, 2012 “Open Letter to the Organic Community” from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) exposed mandated labeling as a means to other ends. It asked “how quickly can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming?” The answer: “The first step is to change our labeling laws.” It also spoke of driving “GMO-tainted foods … off supermarket shelves.” So in addition to advancing the Luddite goal of eliminating a technology that has inspired a second “green revolution,” the OCA saw a profit-making opportunity for a select few food companies through mandatory GMO labeling.

Voters narrowly rejected Proposition 37, but the loss inspired an aggressive effort to pass mandatory labeling laws in other states. Connecticut and Maine adopted mandatory labeling laws in 2013 and early 2014, respectively, which would only take effect once other surrounding states also adopted such laws. “Right to know” remained the stated justification for labeling, but some proponents’ comments during this time betrayed the larger agenda. Center for Food Safety’s (CFS) executive director said, “We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” The head of an alternative-medicine product marketer and major contributor to the labeling cause, wrote, “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this.”

Vermont handed the labeling activists their first outright victory in May 2014 with the passage of Act 120. The Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a request for an injunction against the law, arguing the mandate violated their First Amendment rights. A federal court denied its request, and in July 2015 (with the support of WLF as an amicus), the plaintiffs appealed their loss to the Second Circuit. With the appeal pending, the US Congress took action, adopting the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which the President signed on July 29. The law preempts existing and future state GMO-labeling laws, and empowers the US Department of Agriculture to develop rules that would require affected food makers to include a prescribed informational statement, a symbol, or a scannable “QR code,” all of which would inform consumers of the existence of GMOs.

In reacting to the federal law’s passage, some mandatory-labeling proponents confirmed that labeling has always been a means to much larger ends. For instance, after the law’s passage, the founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, which opposed the federal standard, implored his followers that “we are still winning the bigger, more important effort to ELIMINATE GMOs from the market altogether. Labeling GMOs was never the end goal for us. It was a tactic” (emphasis in original).

Meanwhile, the OCA is seemingly harnessing the law’s passage to advance its prior goal of growing organic-food makers’ market share beyond that “4.2% niche.” Through the Buycott.org website, OCA is calling on consumers to eschew products made by “companies that helped defeat GMO labeling laws.” The call to arms includes an exhortation to “Buy only the products sold by the companies … that support your right to know,” and provides a link to these “pure” organic companies. That list does not include organic-food divisions of companies that “helped defeat GMO labeling laws.”

We can’t help but wonder whether OCA realizes that such an exemption works against its goal of establishing organic as the “dominant force in American food and farming.” Perhaps prohibition of food biotechnology is, in the end, the one true aim—and punishing any companies who stand in their way is just another tactic.

The pursuit of prohibition behind the veil of consumers’ “right to know” would be the ultimate betrayal of the public interest. Biotechnology is replacing far-less-precise conventional plant breeding, and, in the process, reducing farming’s environmental impact, expanding the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables, and lowering the cost of production. Based on their revealed preferences at the checkout stand, most consumers prefer the healthy option of cheaper food produced with the benefit of harmless GMO technology. Taking away such valid consumer choices through prohibition and propaganda efforts is decidedly not in the public interest.

Crops grown from engineered seeds have been a part of America’s food supply for decades, and have had no negative public-health impact. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration echoed these points last November in rejecting CFS’s mandatory GMO-labeling petition.

If self-appointed guardians like Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association were truly working on the public’s behalf, they would devote their large budgets and impressive advocacy skills to educating Americans about biotechnology, not demonizing it. Their disinterest in doing so is further proof that advocates’ claims of acting “in the public interest” must be taken with a large grain of (now equally demonized) salt.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page.

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