I have a story on All Things Considered Wednesday (click on the audio link above to hear it) about the campaign to put labels on food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The idea is gaining ground in the Northeast — Maine and Connecticut passed labeling laws this summer, though they won't take effect unless more states do the same. And GMO labeling is on the ballot this November in Washington state.
One aspect I didn't have room for in the radio story is the question of what might happen if the movement succeeds. In the U.S., something on the order of 70 percent of our food already contains at least some GMO ingredients, so the GMO label would suddenly become ubiquitous on most grocery shelves. How would consumers react?
The foes of genetic engineering hope America's experience will mirror Europe's. GMO food is legal, there, but it has to be labeled, and marketers are wary of consumer backlash. So GMO foods are rare.
But America isn't Europe. For one thing, Americans have been eating GMO foods since 1996, without strange side effects. Critics say GMOs haven't been tested enough, but the verdict of mainstream science is that they're safe to eat. Just last month, Scientific American ran an editorial emphasizing this point and decrying "unfounded fears."
Even Michael Pollan agrees on that front. "I haven't seen any evidence that's persuaded me that there's any danger to health," says the food journalist, who's become a kind of hero for the organic and local-food movements. He doesn't like GMOs, and he's quick to add that he thinks they need more testing. But he says arguments about possible health effects miss the larger point.
"I don't think this is a fight about science, he says. "I think it's a fight about transparency — people who want to know where their food comes from should have this information."
And one other thing to keep in mind is that the U.S. already has a de facto "Non-GMO" label: organic. Organic foods may not contain any genetically modified organisms. It may turn out that the consumers who would avoid GMO labels have already taken their business to Whole Foods.
Proponents of mandatory labeling say that's not enough. Andrew Stout, founder of Full Circle farm, an organic produce company outside Seattle, says people who don't have access to organic food — or can't afford it — still deserve to know whether they're eating GMOs.
"It's no different than just having sodium, salt, artificial flavors and artificial colors, country of origin," Stout says. "Consumers look for that kind of information and make their own individual choices."
But genetic engineering is different. It's not an ingredient — it's a technique. Genetic modifications can change plants and animals in any number of ways: Corn modified to resist a certain weed killer is not the same as rice that's been reprogrammed to contain more vitamin A. They're beneficial — or risky — in completely different ways. Mandatory labels might mislead consumers to lump all GMOs together.
That's one of the main arguments presented by the anti-labeling campaigns. The other is the potential increase in production costs. That's the concern of former Washington state agriculture director and full-time farmer Dan Newhouse. As a farmer who grows some GMO and some non-GMO, he says it's going to be hard work keeping them separate. He imagines moving a harvester from a field of one kind of corn to the other.
"I'd have to be able to clean that harvester so well, that there's not one kernel of [GMO] corn on that machine," Newhouse says. "So I would not be able to guarantee that there's no commingling."
Opponents of mandatory labeling say the extra effort would increase the price of food by an average of $450 a year, for a family of four. While an independent study by the Washington State Academy of Sciences agreed that labeling would come with a cost, it noted that it's impossible to calculate how much that cost would be.
Given the prevalence of GMO ingredients in American food, some manufacturers may skip the cost of keeping things segregated, and simply slap a GMO label on everything. That option may become especially attractive if it turns out consumers aren't put off by the label. (You know those err-on-the-side-of-safety warnings about candy bars that are made in a facility that also processes nuts? Just substitute "GMO" for nuts, and you see where this might go.)
"The psychological research ... suggests that when you give people choice over risk, they're less afraid of it," says David Ropeik, a writer who specializes in how people assess risk. "Assuming that [the label] was something short of a skull and crossbones, it's likely that many people would accept it and say, 'Fine, I'll buy it!' "
If you doubt it, he says, then think about all the other things that come with scary labels — things you end up buying anyway.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Since the mid-'90s, Americans have been eating genetically modified foods: plants that have had their DNA altered in the lab to give them new traits. For instance, there's a kind of corn that makes its own insecticide. These GMO foods aren't required to be labeled in the stores, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, that may soon change.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There's a national movement to require labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, and it's starting to score some victories. Maine and Connecticut have passed labeling laws, though they won't take effect unless more states follow suit. You may recall the issue was on the ballot in California last year and it lost. But the vote was close, and supporters chose to see it as a near-victory.
JOE WHINNEY: Thank you.
KASTE: Now they've put it on the ballot in Washington state. This is a campaign fundraiser at Theo's Chocolates in Seattle.
WHINNEY: And it's time for Washington state to pull the rest of the country up to the modern day and join India and a lot of other countries that already have GMO labeling.
KASTE: Joe Whinney started this chocolate company, which is, as you might expect, organic. And that's what makes Washington state an obvious next battlefield for the labeling campaign. Food matters here - organic, local, foraged - and the local celebrity chefs like Maria Hines are deeply skeptical of GMOs.
MARIA HINES: I would avoid them. I would avoid them until there's more science that actually, you know, really says if it's safe or not. Right now there's a lot of contradictory information out there as to whether it's safe or it's not safe.
KASTE: There is a lot of contradictory information out there, but the science is not so contradictory. So far, GMO foods have tested clean, safe to eat. It's a point the anti-labeling campaign makes in its ads.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Initiative 522 would mandate a labeling policy in Washington that has no scientific justification.
KASTE: But don't take the word of the guy on TV. Ask Michael Pollan.
MICHAEL POLLAN: I haven't seen any evidence that's persuaded me that there is any danger to health.
KASTE: Pollan is the food journalist who's become a kind of hero for the organic and local-eating movements. He doesn't like GMOs, and he's quick to add that he thinks they need more testing. But he says arguments about possible health effects miss the larger point.
POLLAN: I don't think this is a fight about science. I think it's a fight about transparency. People who want to know where there food comes from should have this information.
KASTE: He sees the labeling campaign as a political test for America's nascent food movement. Pollan says that movement has latched on to GMO food as the symbol of corporate power in agriculture.
POLLAN: So I'm not surprised it would become a funnel for this energy. Is it the best? You know, I'm not sure. But it's certainly an easy one to get people organized around.
KASTE: Corporate power has become a leitmotif in this election, especially with the millions of dollars that the anti-labeling campaign gets from GMO seed makers: multinational behemoths like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. That money comes up a lot when you're talking to pro-label campaigners.
KASTE: People like Andrew Stout. He's on his organic farm near Seattle, seeing off a shipment of baby bok choy.
ANDREW STOUT: It's really a tell, you know, when you have six out-of-state corporations that are pouring the dollars in and telling us as Washingtonians what we should and shouldn't know. I think it's appalling.
KASTE: But the organic food industry has some clout of its own. Stout's farm, for instance, started out on three acres but now his company delivers produce to 20,000 customers and is sold at Safeway. That kind of growth is a challenge to the farmers who do use GMOs.
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DAN NEWHOUSE: Hello?
KASTE: Farmers like Dan Newhouse in the Lower Yakima Valley.
NEWHOUSE: Yeah. We were picking grapes all night, and now my wife and I are trying to get the payroll done for the apple-picking.
KASTE: Newhouse is also a former state agriculture director, and he stars in some of the ads for the No campaign. Sure, he says, Monsanto is a big company. But what about those organic producers on the yes side?
NEWHOUSE: Large companies that have an interest, perhaps an economic interest, in seeing this thing pass to increase the value of their products. You know, that's - it's kind of the pot calling the kettle black.
KASTE: Organic food already commands a premium price. Some non-organic farmers worry that their food might lose even more value if it's stigmatized by a GMO label. Jill McCluskey has studied this. She's an economics professor at Washington State University.
JILL MCCLUSKEY: We use econometric models to estimate a mean discount.
KASTE: That is, she's calculated how much a GMO label might devalue a product in the eyes of consumers. The study she did was a few years ago in Japan.
MCCLUSKEY: They required a discount that would be at least 60 percent.
KASTE: Sixty percent. Now, Americans are less traditional about food than the Japanese, so McCluskey thinks the GMO discount would be smaller here. Other academics think there may be no stigma at all because the label would be on practically everything.
In fact, for this very reason, some GMO supporters now favor mandatory labeling. They say it might actually be the best way to put people's minds at ease. Could be an interesting experiment, but judging by the political spending, it's not one the food industry really wants to risk. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.