October 18, 2015
In a rare and uncharacteristic mood of timeliness, I note that the Senate Agriculture Committee is supposed to hold hearings on GMO labeling this week. “Supposed” rather than “will” because a) who knows what they will actually do? I’m not omniscient, and b) I’m too lazy to dig into their calendar and figure out whether there has been a change since the last time I knew anything about this (which was, truthfully, a couple of weeks ago). So with both readers forewarned and my contractual obligation to pursue irrelevant tangents fulfilled, I plow ahead.
I have advocated some form of GMO labeling since 1997, when doing so was exceedingly unpopular. However, I have also argued that the best case would be for the food industry to figure out how to do this voluntarily. We have lots of voluntary labels in the food world: fair-trade, gluten-free, Red Delicious. You don’t have to tell customers that this apple is a Red Delicious variety. All the Government cares about is whether or not once you’ve made these claims, they are in actual fact true. But before you can decide whether the claim is true there is also a bit of sticky philosophical business to sort out in terms of what the claim means. I’ve always presumed that a “GMO free” label means that the labeled product is neither itself GMO (e.g. its genetics are a product of gene transfer) nor does it contain GMOs in the case of a processed food.
We would also expect the label to imply that some reasonable steps have been taken to assure this, and in the world of voluntary labels that usually means there is some third party that attests to this. So just to be clear, you the buyer and the person or company marketing the product are the first two parties (don’t get me started on who is first and who is second). The “third party” is a mediator who satisfies that the product is “GMO free” in a manner that is putatively satisfactory to both of you. Now if you’ve been paying attention to the food world, you are probably aware that you can in fact buy GMO-free products these days, and you might think that products labeled GMO-free are (just as I said) neither GMOs nor contain GMOs. But while this is the case, the GMO-free label typically means more than this.
Specifically, the groups that promote and certify GMO-free labels interpret this as a moral claim. Not only does a person or company that labels their product as GMO-free have to speak the truth, they must also be philosophically opposed to any GMOs in the food system. They must be enrolled in a social movement that aims to prevent those people who either want GMOs or alternatively just don’t give a hoot from having any opportunity to use them. From a practical standpoint, this means that if I own a tortilla factory and I want to label my truthfully non-GMO tortillas as non-GMO, that’s not enough. I can’t also be making or marketing another line of tortillas that are made from Bt maize. That would be regarded as an insufficient commitment to the cause by the main groups that are certifying products as non-GMO or GMO-free.
However this commitment to moral purity is also kind of half-assed, if I can permit that expression in a family oriented blog, because the rules don’t extend into the supply chain. I can buy the non-GMO maize for my certified GMO-free tortillas from a guy that grows or sells both GMO and non-GMO maize, even if he or she can’t label the non-GMO maize as such because of their insufficient philosophical commitment to a non-GMO food system. Now to be sure, I can’t use his GMO maize for my GMO-free tortillas because my claim that they are GMO-free would then be false. You are, in a strict sense, getting what you pay for. But if you thought you were buying ideological purity along with that tortilla, I’m sorry to report that the purity is only skin deep. If I had my druthers, we’d drop the moral purity thing altogether, and I could sell both GMO-free tortillas and standard non-labeled tortillas (and who knows what is in them—but maybe you don’t care).
Not so simple as you thought, eh, Chucko! Is it any wonder that Senate Agriculture Committee has become convinced that there are tough questions to sort out? Stay tuned (or maybe not!).
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University