Over in Off The Cuff, Kazzy asked whether or not he was a “bad liberal” or “taking crazy pills” for his belief that food processors should not be required to label food that comes from genetically modified organisms (GMO):
I’m trying to figure out why I seem to be the only person I know who does not believe that foods containing GMOs should be legally required to label as such. To me, mandated speech is just as much a “free speech” issue as halting it. And while I recognize that companies aren’t people and don’t have all the same rights, I still find it bothersome. Especially given that I have yet to see hard evidence that GMOs actually pose any kind of threat. Proponents of such laws argue that folks have a right to know and, more importantly, want GMO-free food. But if that were the case, wouldn’t we see organizations develop standards for being certified GMO-free and companies printing money by catering to this supposedly massive market?
Though Kaz initially worried that he might be the only person to hold such an opinion, the threads have by and large backed him up. “GMOs are backed by science,” goes the central thrust of the argument, “and because of this labels should not be required.”
I will say up front that I agree with Kaz and others about the scientific findings on GMO products. Most reputable studies that I am aware of suggest that there is no discernable danger in eating foods that have been genetically modified in a laboratory, and as such I have no qualms in eating them. Indeed, I confess that when I hear people fretting about GMO products I often suspect a layer of neo-luddism lies at the heart of their concerns. In a world where access to astoundingly cheap and sustainable food still means the difference between life and death for far too many, I am a very pro-GMO guy.
Despite all of this, however, Kazzy and most of my brethren here are absolutely, positively, one hundred percent wrong. Manufacturers of GMO foods should be required to label their products as such; anything short of such a requirement should be considered unacceptable by consumers.
There is a mountain of evidence that grows daily that suggests that what we eat has a very direct impact on our health. We’ve always known this as a general rule, of course, but the extent to which is it true seems to grow the more we study the effects of nutrition on the human body. We have known for a long time that too much sugar can lead to chronic health problems. But now there is even some evidence that human body might process certain kinds of sugars differently, and that because of this different sweeteners might be more detrimental than others. When I was a child it was assumed that homogenized milk was good for you, period. Now it appears that it may have adverse effects in many adults to varying degrees, including chronic digestive problems and an increased risk of heart disease. A generation ago, if you didn’t drop dead from a eating a peanut the entire concept that your chronic health issues might be related to food allergies was widely mocked; today, it is one of the first things doctors consider with certain maladies. And after my new regiment of going in to have my blood pressure taken on a weekly basis, don’t even talk to me about salt. In fact, a surprising amount of our entire bloated healthcare budget is spent on ailments that are either directly or indirectly related to what we choose to eat and drink on a daily basis.
Whether we choose to pay attention to it or not, our diet has a very direct and intimate impact on our health, longevity and quality of life. And regardless of what Kazzy or I think of their concerns, the reality is that there are a lot of people out there who are unsure about how GMO food impacts those things.
And therein lies the crux of the matter:
Of all the non-negotiable demands consumers might make, “it’s not ok for companies to hide information about the food I eat” should always be right up there at the top.
I am always baffled to hear people argue that agribusiness should be allowed to hide from us what we put into our bodies, as well as information regarding how it was grown, raised, or manufactured. The truth is that this isn’t really a debate about the science of GMOs, it’s a debate about transparency – and it’s one that’s older than GMOs.
In my life, I’ve heard agribusiness and the food service industry argue that they have a right to hide the ingredients, processing methods and nutritional information of what they sell from consumers; I’ve heard as well that they should be allowed to make untrue claims about those same ingredients, processes and nutritional value. And every time they do, I am stunned to hear a vocal number of consumers argue on their behalf.
Each time a question of potential transparency arises we’re told that the public simply can’t handle the truth and that the food industry will suffer financial losses that will ruin them. Every time they’re forced to do so, the cries of panic end up being for naught. In those places where fast food companies are required to disclose nutritional information, fast food is still big business. Your grocery store aisles are still predominantly filled with packaged foods where the item you believe you are buying (e.g.: orange juice) is in fact not the first or even second of the ingredients listed. Items everywhere have labels that warn “May Contain Nuts,” and people still purchase them.
If you believe (as I do) that there is no reason to worry about GMOs, then don’t worry about the label. If there are enough people who are worried, there are actually plenty of growers/processors out there that will do things differently and less efficiently for a higher price. That’s the way the market is supposed to work, not some ridiculous Randian fantasy on Bovine Growth Hormones where people who die from eating things they’re allergic to learn not to by the same product in the future.
Science may change its mind on GMO food in the future, as it seems to be doing with corn byproducts, cow’s milk, allergies and salt. Or it may not – in fifty years time GMO food may be so ubiquitous that you simply can’t purchase anything else. Or perhaps it will be something in between. That’s not the point. The point is this:
We should never, ever begin to go down the road where we tell food manufacturers that they have our blessing to purposefully hide information about what we consume from us.