Is the food movement for real? In his contribution to The New York Times Magazine‘s latest food issue, Michael Pollan contends that we’ll find out on November 6. That’s when Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative which would require many foods to carry label language disclosing that they may contain genetically engineered ingredients. Pollan argues that this initiative is the food movement’s chance to prove itself. People have already begun to “vote with their forks” by opting for local, organic, and humanely-produced foods, he explains, but Proposition 37 will represent food activists’ first real chance to bring about political change. If the initiative passes, then “a new political dynamic will be set in motion.”
My view of Proposition 37 is less optimistic. Believe it or not, for much of this blog’s existence, I’ve identified with the food movement. The existence of this blog is a testament to the fact that I have felt that the movement’s leadership has not always been as thoughtful or informed as I would like, but I generally believed the movement’s basic contention that we should be eating organic food produced locally and on a small scale. In fact, I’m currently serving my third year as an unpaid director of a non-profit which operates a local and organic grocery store on co-operative principles (though I don’t speak for the organization). But over the last several months, as I’ve made an effort to learn more about genetic engineering and Proposition 37, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the broader food movement.
This post is not about the science related to the genetic engineering debate. I trust the scientific consensus that these foods are safe to eat, and I don’t know of any reason to believe that the process of genetic engineering is inherently environmentally destructive. My intention with this post is to explore the political implications of Proposition 37. That is, what are the ideologies behind the proposition? What will it change? How will it make that change happen?
Proposition 37 won’t give Californians a “right to know”
Echoing the rhetoric of one of the main organizations backing Proposition 37, Pollan tells us that the initiative is about “the consumer’s right to know.” Chris MacDonald has argued that consumers don’t have a moral right to an arbitrary piece of information about their food, and I agree. However, I want to point out that even if we believe that consumers have such a right, Proposition 37 won’t give it to them.
Why? For all the talk about a right to know, the initiative won’t really make much more information available to consumers. The initiative doesn’t require labels to state outright that a product contains genetically engineered ingredients. Instead, it offers a sort of middle ground, allowing for a label to say that a product “May be partially produced with genetic engineering.” This is, of course, exactly what you can conclude today when you see a processed food product with no labeling statement concerning genetic engineering. If companies just add that one sentence to their labels, you’ll know exactly the same things about their foods as you do now. For fresh produce and commodities, you’ll need to learn the short list of crops which exist in genetically engineered forms, but you can still figure it out.
That means that if you have a bit of information, the main thing that Proposition 37 will change is not the information that is available to you but the process by which you deduce that information. Currently, you should assume that a processed food contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients unless you see an explicit indicator to the contrary. For unprocessed foods, you can watch for a short list of crops (corn, soy, canola, beet sugar, papaya, zucchini and yellow summer squash) that are available in genetically engineered form. If Proposition 37 becomes law, you’ll be able to assume that a food is free from GM ingredients unless its label indicates otherwise. It’s the same information, but the process by which you infer it will be different.
That said, less-informed consumers will gain more information. If you did not know that there was no law requiring genetically engineered foods to be labelled, then obviously you would gain information from Proposition 37’s labels. Thus, the people who will gain information from the initiative’s passage are relatively disengaged and not informed about the issue of genetic engineering.
Why more information isn’t always better
Providing information to less-informed consumers can be a very a good thing, but information without adequate context is rarely useful and can even be misleading. For instance, a consumer who is concerned about the practice of giving synthetic hormones to farm animals might seek out meat labelled “no hormones added.” However, because federal regulations explicitly forbid administering hormones to pigs, it would be misleading to have this language on the label of a pork product. A consumer might be led to believe that this makes one package of pork “better” than the others, when, in reality, it is true of all of the pork in the store. For this reason, USDA regulations prohibit the labeling of pork with claims like “no hormones added” except when accompanied by a clarification about these regulations.
The potential for confusion is particularly pronounced when the public is poorly informed about an issue, and research indicates that this is the case with genetic engineering: in a recent NSF survey, only 47% of Americans correctly identified as false the statement, “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” If people don’t know that all plants contain genes, they probably also do not know, for instance, that genetic engineering is less risky than some traditional plant breeding techniques which do not require labels. Will telling them that their food has been genetically engineered really help them make informed decisions?
To make matters worse, Proposition 37 exempts several types of food products from labeling, including alcohol, restaurant meals, and foods derived from animals raised on genetically engineered feed. The last of these is particularly unfortunate. Suppose that Proposition 37 passes, and a consumer is concerned about the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds (a problem which is explicitly mentioned in the text of the proposition as a justification for labeling) and therefore wants to avoid purchasing genetically engineered foods. If that consumer is deciding whether to purchase, say, beef patties or Morningstar Farms veggie burgers, the veggie burgers will have a label indicating that they contain genetically engineered ingredients, but the beef patties will not. Of course, a typical beef patty requires more grain (in the form of cattle feed) than a soy burger, so the consumer would be incorrect to conclude that the beef patties will contribute less to the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds. By exempting from labeling the products of the livestock that eat the majority of the genetically engineered grain in our food system, Proposition 37 could conceivably increase the cultivation of GM crops.
Of course, a consumer who understood the nuances of Proposition 37 would be able to make a better-informed decision. However, a consumer today who understands the lack of existing labeling laws can also make that decision. Moreover, because the current policy is consistent and straightforward, there are fewer situations in which labels are deceptive to those who are less informed.
Should consumers be required to know?
Obvious though it may be, it’s worth pointing out that a right is not the same thing as a requirement. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gives people the right to bear arms, but nobody would accuse me of violating this by not owning a gun. People can choose to waive rights that they don’t care about.
If you want to avoid genetically modified foods, you already have the option of doing so. You can just buy foods marketed as organic or non-GM. Consumers who don’t care whether their food has been genetically engineered are free to waive this right by purchasing foods that have no such language. Proposition 37, rather than giving consumers a “right to know” would make it harder for consumers to waive that right. It would move us closer to creating a requirement to know that certain foods may have been genetically modified. Of course, nobody can make anyone read the label, but many consumers have other reasons to look at labels, and they are bound to find the genetic engineering language. In this way, Proposition 37 attempts to shift participation in the conversation about genetic engineering from an opt-in basis to an opt-out basis.
I think most people would agree that there are certain pieces of information that consumers don’t need to know when they’re deciding what to eat. Would anybody insist that before you eat a tomato, you need to know whether the farmworker who picked it was left-handed or right-handed? Even if some people wanted this information, it would be a big hassle to keep the tomatoes picked by left-handed workers separate from the tomatoes picked by right-handed workers. Instead of requiring this segregation all along the supply chain, we’d simply leave the people who wanted the information to buy from producers who were willing to provide it.
Of course, many pieces of information are not so frivolous. But the point is this: Encoded in a policy of mandatory labeling is the idea that a piece of information should be important to you or perhaps somebody else. The tomato example shows that we don’t just require labels for arbitrary characteristics in the interest of “transparency.” With that in mind, we need to ask why the information needs to be on everybody’s food labels, regardless of whether they want it.
Some supporters insist that labeling is needed because we don’t know whether genetically engineered foods are safe. For instance, the pro-labeling campaign has recently attempted to bolster its case by citing a French study which claimed to provide evidence that Monsanto’s GM corn causes cancer in rats. (The study has received criticism for everything from serious methodological flaws to a refusal to release data.)
While I trust the scientific consensus that genetically engineered foods are safe, the question I want to ask is this: If genetically engineered foods are unsafe, is mandatory labeling a good way to deal with that problem? Mandatory labeling would leave the consumers to educate themselves about the issue and to pay more for safer food choices. That means that it would make safe food a privilege for people with more time and money on their hands. Personally, I think a better approach would be to ban unsafe foods.
A concern for which mandatory labeling makes a lot more sense is food allergens. We wouldn’t ban the sale of peanuts just because a small segment of the population has an adverse reaction to them. But for those people who are allergic to peanuts, avoiding the consumption of peanuts can be a matter of life or death. Mandatory allergen labeling reflects a judgment that the needs of people with allergies are important enough to justify any additional costs in food production and any confusion on the part of consumers who don’t need the information. (Existing genetically engineered crops are not known to have any allergens not present in the non-GM varieties and new genetically engineered crops are tested for allergens.)
Is genetic engineering really the problem?
To Pollan, however, Proposition 37 isn’t primarily about food safety. He explains,
The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.
There’s a lot in that sentence, some of it related to real problems with modern agriculture. Yet if we’re going to try to address these problems using labels, it’s not at all clear that GM ingredients are the right thing to label.
If Monsanto is “the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture,” maybe the foods that should be labelled are the ones derived from Monsanto seeds. Alternatively, a more even-handed approach might require food labels to specify the companies that controlled the seeds from which the ingredients were derived. This would be better for a couple of reasons. For one thing, not all Monsanto seeds are produced with genetic engineering. As the organic farmer Raoul W. Adamchak notes in the book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, Monsanto controls many hybrid vegetable varieties popular among organic farmers. In addition, not all genetically engineered crops are controlled by large companies like Monsanto. For instance, the rainbow papaya, genetically engineered for disease resistance, was developed by publicly funded scientists, and seeds were distributed to farmers for free. How Monsanto’s misdeeds constitute an argument for special labeling of the rainbow papaya is entirely unclear.
We could further improve on this “Monsanto label” by requiring some additional information. Since “pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures” are of concern, why not also require food labels to disclose the amounts of different pesticides used in their production and indicate which ingredients were derived from crops grown in monocultures? Neither pesticides nor monocultures are exclusive to GM crops. Moreover, not all GM crops increase pesticide use. Indeed a recent study — heralded by organic advocates — offered evidence that crops genetically engineered for insect resistance have actually decreased insecticide use in recent years. If we’re also concerned about the monopolization of seeds, let’s add another requirement for labeling of ingredients produced from patented seeds.
Here it is worth revisiting the earlier point that providing information with insufficient context can be misleading. When somebody of Pollan’s stature asserts that Proposition 37 is a way to bring about change on all these issues, it would be easy to conclude that a genetically engineered papaya is a Monsanto papaya or that tortillas made from genetically engineered Bt corn are grown with the most intense “rain of pesticides.” Both of these conclusions would be incorrect.
Politics by transparency
Of course, there are reasons why we might not want to include all of those pieces of information on food labels. It would take up a lot of space on the label, for one thing. It would also require a lot of information to be transmitted along the supply chain, which might increase the cost of food significantly. So one might argue that even if genetic engineering isn’t really the root of the problem, it’s a pretty good proxy for a bunch of problems, so labeling GM foods is a decent compromise. It’s not perfect, but perhaps the Hawaiian papaya industry is acceptable collateral damage in the struggle against Monsanto.
However, in discussing the merits of labeling as a means of addressing these systematic problems, it’s also important to consider how effective labeling will be as an approach to the issues. How will a label on genetically engineered foods lead to solutions to, say, the problem of monocultures in agriculture?
According to the food movement, the answer is something like this. First, consumers will learn (perhaps by reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma) that monocultures in agriculture are bad and that many monocultures are genetically engineered. Next, they will decide to pay more for non-GM foods to avoid supporting monocultures. Finally, producers will respond to the change in demand by diversifying crops.
Even ignoring that avoiding GM foods doesn’t guarantee that you’ll avoid monocultures, this pathway to change seems less than plausible. Not everybody wants to take the time to learn about agriculture before deciding what to eat for dinner. And some people are unable or unwilling to spend more money on food. To count on informed consumers making “better” buying choices to solve systemic problems is absurd. These are problems that will only be solved by changing policies. If pesticides are the problem, let’s improve our regulations on the use of pesticides. If Monsanto is the problem, we should revisit our laws governing corporations. (Indeed, for all the progressive interest groups that have rallied behind it, Proposition 37 essentially takes a right-wing approach to dealing with social problems, leaving the market to sort things out.)
Yet, as Julie Guthman has noted, the idea of informed consumerism as a path to change is a cornerstone of the food movement’s philosophy. One sees it, for instance, in encouragements to “know your farmer” or in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when Pollan writes, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” The contention is that if people only knew what was going on with our food supply, they would choose to eat something “better,” and the problem would be solved. Strikingly, the food movement is so wedded to this model of social change that when they finally are asking people to vote at the polls, it’s for a measure designed to facilitate conscientious consumerism.
Pollan writes in the introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the pleasures of eating are “only deepened by knowing.” For those who agree with Pollan on this point, it might be hard to understand why anybody wouldn’t want to know more about their food. However, it’s a fact that many people don’t choose to spend time learning about food production, and in a society that has embraced division of labor, we should expect this. The existence of people who would make such a choice runs contrary to the food movement’s ideology. Accordingly, we are told that the absence of certain information on food labels is due to “the power of Big Food.” In this view, people who haven’t engaged in the conversation about food production are unknowing victims, and Proposition 37 is here to empower them to stop Monsanto.
The anti-genetic engineering misinformation machine
If you look at the Yes on 37 campaign’s list of endorsers, you’ll a number of organizations which seem determined to drive the GMO debate into the gutter. Among these is the “natural health” website NaturalNews.com, which regularly publishes thoroughly crackpottish conspiracy theories about genetic engineering and other topics. Take, for instance, an article titled “Bill Gates, Monsanto, and eugenics: How one of the world’s wealthiest men is actively promoting a corporate takeover of global agriculture.” If you read the article, you’ll see that the supposed connection to eugenics arises from Bill Gates’ father’s ties to Planned Parenthood, which is identified as a eugenics group.
To be clear, this article was published by NaturalNews.com, not the Yes on 37 campaign. Nor do I have reason to believe that the campaign agrees with the point of view of this particular article. Yet the campaign has not taken an explicit stand against these extreme viewpoints, even as it touts the endorsement of NaturalNews.com on its website and links to other NaturalNews.com articles on Twitter. Evidently, the campaign has no qualms with encouraging people to get their news from NaturalNews.
Over the summer, when the Right to Know campaign sought my organization’s endorsement, I told my fellow board members that while I personally planned to vote against the initiative, I was open to encouraging our membership to support it if the general sentiment were that it reflected our organization’s values. But I also expressed my belief that as an organization that aimed to educate people about food-related issues, it would not behoove us to give our support to a campaign that was, in turn, lending its credibility to purveyors of the sort of vile, bottom-of-the-barrel dreck that is all too common at NaturalNews. If we wanted to support the labeling initiative, I suggested that we do it in a way that stood for a higher level of discourse. (In the end, we voted to post balanced information about the initiative in our store, without taking a position.)
I have been disappointed to see that the labeling movement seems less interested in thoughtful discussion than in doing anything and everything to stop genetic engineering. While food movement leaders like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan deserve credit for expressing skepticism about the aforementioned French study claiming a link between GM corn and cancer, they have been regrettably silent on the broader misinformation campaign from the Yes on 37 campaign and its allies like NaturalNews.com and author Jeffrey Smith, whose anti-biotech literature has been thoroughly debunked.
The fact that some proponents of Proposition 37 engage in what Dan Kahan calls “pollution of the science communication environment” in advancing their cause is not, in itself, a reason to oppose Proposition 37. Yet it should nonetheless raise some concerns about what might happen if Proposition 37 should pass.
As I have explained, the main immediate effect of Proposition 37 will be to make previously disengaged consumers begin to think about genetic engineering. The trouble is that because these consumers have already demonstrated a lack of interest in learning about the issue, they are liable to be swayed by the loudest, scariest, and most persistent voices, rather than the best-informed or most even-handed ones.
Perhaps that means that the shrill anti-genetic engineering advocates like Jeffrey Smith and NaturalNews will be the thought leaders of tomorrow. However, as we have seen, the biotech and food industries have plenty of money, and they have, regrettably, spread some misinformation of their own. The industry will certainly fight back, perhaps with an information campaign or a sustained effort to tie the anti-genetic engineering movement to its more extreme elements. If they are successful, things could go very differently.
Ultimately, what this suggests to me is that Proposition 37 is bad politics. Dragging ill-informed and uninterested consumers into a dirty political fight and expecting them to make “conscientious” consumer decisions is not the way to spur social progress. And spreading misinformation isn’t going to help that. If Proposition 37 is how the food movement will prove itself, count me out.
Updated 10/16/2012 to change the spelling of “labeling” throughout. Apparently my spell-checker is British.
Correction 10/26/2012: This post has been corrected to state that an NSF survey found that 47% of Americans correctly identified the statement “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do” as false. An earlier version of the post stated that 47% of Americans incorrectly believed that the statement was true.
Correction 2/21/2013: Earlier versions of this post claimed that livestock eat “the vast majority of our genetically engineered grain.” Thanks to commenter Eric B. for pointing out that this is no longer true due to ethanol production.