Voters here in California will get the chance for the first time this coming fall to weigh in on the issue of whether foods containing genetically modified organisms should be specially labeled. Ordinarily, on the theory that the public can’t get too much information, I’d be all in favor of such a requirement. But in giving it careful consideration, I don’t think it’s such a good idea.
Those in favor say that such a requirement would be in the interest of public health. It seems strange then that in late June the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health noted that despite strong consumer interest in mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, FDA’s science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. “The council supports this science-based approach, and believes that thorough pre-market safety assessment and FDA’s requirement that any material difference between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts be disclosed in labeling, are effective in ensuring the safety of bioengineered food,” read their official statement.
The council added that consumers wishing to choose foods without bioengineered ingredients may do so by purchasing those that are labeled “USDA Organic.”
Don’t Say No To Innovation
The AMA’s assertion that there would be no improvement in safety would be reason enough. The last thing we need is more legislation that doesn’t do anything substantive. But worse yet, such a move might actually harm society by taking a step backward, concludes a paper that just crossed my desk titled “The Logic and Consequences of Labeling GMOs.”
The author, David Zilberman, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California-Berkeley, makes the surprising assertion that the main question is not whether consumers should have a choice regarding their own consumption of GMOs. Instead, he argues the issue is whether GM foods will be the norm and non-GM food labeled, or vice versa.
Zilberman notes that mainstream scientific research has not found GM foods riskier to public health or the environment. In fact, there is evidence that GM food improves human and environmental well-being. Labeling will have the consequence of making the technology less appealing, as occurred in Europe where a GM ban was instituted in 1999.
Right at a time when we are coming to grips with the issue of how to feed the 9 billion people expected to populate the earth in 2050, we’re going to stop technology in its tracks? Zilberman’s conclusion hits the nail squarely on the head: “Voters will have to ask whether the potential gain associated with labeling is worth the cost associated with technological stagnation and the resulting losses in economic and environmental welfare.” I don’t see much of a potential gain, anyway, so for this voter, the choice is easy. Say no to labeling; say yes to science.