GMO Labeling: Do We Have A Right To Know?

» May 2nd, 2014


A version of this piece ran in Pacific Standard last November. Given the vocal response to my last post, I thought it made sense to run it here at The Pitchfork.

The push is on to require foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label. Last year, California missed passing a labeling proposition by a hair. A similar initiative failed again this year by just a fraction of a hair in Washington. In June, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law(although it remains ineffective until four other eastern states, one of them bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws). Nine days after Connecticut’s bill passed, Maine followed suit. Other states are clamoring.

Despite considerable push-back from the predictable corporate interests, including Monsanto and Dow, there’s every reason to believe that some form of GMO labeling is on the horizon. This development, for all of the controversy it generates, is probably a good thing for both producers and consumers. But not for the reasons one might assume.

The most common justification offered for labeling GMO ingredients is that consumers “have a right to know” what’s in our food. So pervasive is this explanation that the most conspicuous lobbying initiative for GMO labeling is called “Right to Know GMO.” The claim has become a catchphrase in the movement’s promotional rhetoric. The GMO Awareness organization explains how “it’s your right to know if it’s GMO.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame—condemn the corporate effort to prevent our “right to know.” Food Democracy Now! touts our “fundamental right to know” whether or not GMOs are in our food.

But do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food? The ring of empowerment behind the right to know justification is undeniable. But, on closer inspection, this is rights talk run amok. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we don’t necessarily have an inherent right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made. This is the case for many reasons.

Embracing a right is premised to some extent on the reasonable ability to achieve its fulfillment. Pragmatically speaking, the steps required to produce food today are too numerous, too complex, and too elusive to realistically satisfy the consumer’s right to know. This claim holds equally true for all methods and forms of agricultural production—local or global, organic or conventional, factory farm or Old MacDonald’s.

In a way, we sacrificed our right to know when we left the land. And even when we were on it, we still may not have had a right to know what was in our food for the practical reason that, again, knowing wasn’t remotely possible. In many cases, whatever right we may have to know is undermined by the fact that we often don’t even know what we might have a right to know.

Consider: Do we have a right to know how close a farm was to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Do we have a right to know if growers used conventional fertilizer that contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know how many pounds of legal herbicides were sprayed on our lettuce? Do we have a right to know how often food handlers washed their hands? Closer to the GMO mark, do we have a right to know what kind of hybrid corn was used to make our non-GMO tortillas?

All of these conditions directly influence the food we eat—some of them in ways that might impact health. And, yes, it’s conceivable that this level of detail might someday be included in a bar code that consumers could scan and read. But even so, as matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label, on the basis of a rhetorical appeal to rights.

If we agree that all the mundane details of agriculture do not belong on a label—even if only on practical grounds—why are we so insistent that GMOs are the one thing that absolutely must be called out on labels? (Other than the fact that they’ve been somewhat arbitrarily politicized?)

The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets. Let’s say a pastry chef warms his butter to a specific temperature before making his world famous tarte au citron. Consumers obviously do not have a right to know that temperature. Likewise, Coca-Cola, for it part, is under no obligation to reveal its secret formula to rights-obsessed soft drink aficionados. Brewers work with alchemistic creativity to blend hop varieties and achieve sublime flavor in their concoctions. Good luck trying to get your hands of their formulas. Advocates of that culinary philosophy known as terroir would recoil at the idea of Texas dairy farmers replicating the complex ecological matrix of conditions required for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or even Californians doing so for Champagne, on the basis of rights. In these cases, one might say that producer privilege supersedes that of consumers.

Critics of this anti-rights argument might counter that GMOs are bad for our health and, as a result, aren’t comparable to such arbitrary factors as butter temperature, Coke ingredients, hop ratios, or soil composition. There are two points to consider regarding this objection. First, and we’ve been over this before, there’s no concrete evidence that GMOs pose a unique risk to human health. The American Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—among many other authorities—have all said as much.

Opponents of GMOs routinely note that not enough time has passed to deem GMOs safe for human consumption. This is a fair concern, one worth discussing, as are all cases involving the precautionary principle. But to get a sense of where it might lead we should begin by asking at what exact point in time corn hybrids, pioneered in the 1930s, were deemed safe for human consumption. GMOs have been a staple of our food supply for 20 years. They are in the majority of the processed food we eat. And they are fed to most of animals we eat. How much more time is required before we admit that they are, as far as food goes, relatively safe?

Second, the vagaries of human digestion and ecological conditions are such that virtually any aspect of food production—cooking temperature, ingredient blends, and trademarked formulas—can make certain consumers, or groups of consumers, sick, while, at the same time, leaving others unaffected or even healthier. Welcome to the confused reality of eating: Threading the needle between the land and the digestive tract is an unavoidably risky endeavor and, given the scientific evidence, unaffected by the presence or absence of GMOs in our food supply.

Considering all of these factors, a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails.

But this does not mean there shouldn’t be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label. This is where things get more interesting. The federal government began to implicitly recognize this possible right in 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By 1938, with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, this concern was made explicit and, over time, passively embraced by consumers as a legitimate right.

And it is here that we inch closer to a viable justification for GMO labeling. About a decade ago, some food companies, capitalizing on the public vilification (and misunderstanding) of GMOs, began to add value to their products by voluntarily labeling their goods as “GMO free” (the USDA approved this label in 2013). While this initiative inspired some companies to voluntarily label foods with GMOs in them—namely Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s—the non-GMO label, in the name of clarity, ultimately fostered consumer confusion. It planted a question mark on the vast majority of the food supply—a majority that may or may not have had GMOs in them and, as a result, became (by virtue of the non-GMO label alone) indirectly misleading. It is this situation that a GMO label would help rectify, reducing the possibility of consumers being misled.

Yes, this is an odd hook upon which to hang the GMO label. (It’s a justification that, for one, questions the wisdom of allowing a product to declare on a label what’s not in it.) But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.

Every major food-related technology throughout history—refrigeration and canning come to mind for the past century—was roundly condemned before it was accepted as the norm. As GMOs become associated with products designed to have a clear human health benefit—oil without trans fatyeast for wine that won’t cause a hangoverbiofortified foods—they might have something to gain by no longer hiding in plain sight. If not now, then eventually.

29 Responses to GMO Labeling: Do We Have A Right To Know?

  1. Rucio says:

    This is pretty twisted reasoning. The fact is that most GMO work is to benefit chemical companies, not consumers or even farmers. That is why they oppose rather than embrace labeling.

    Another factor is that GMO is a big leap from breeding hybrids. Whether or not it is harmful (let alone ethical), it generally involves the insertion of genes from other species, so the suggestion that it is misleading to not label it seems valid: GMO corn is something quite different from corn bred by natural means.

  2. Mountain says:

    “do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food?”

    Yes, we do. The right to know what’s in our food is essential to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More importantly, for much of the community reading this, you can’t be a vegan without knowing what’s in your food. Do you have the right to be a vegan? I believe you do.

  3. John T. Maher says:

    While such arguments are not made solely to impress JMC (despite the sadly neglected thread regarding JMC’ss alleged “cute(ness)” the other day) the phrase “But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.” is comforting. Scholars beyond postmodernists and posthumanists are finally moving beyond the stale Millsian/Rawlsian “rights” theory which is the basis for every awful structural thing that American capitalism has inflicted on the ecosystem and the critters. Ironically “rights” theory has been claimed by neoliberals but employed in practice to mean enhanced biopolitical control over the population at the expense of individual rights, which are hardly the point anyway.

  4. Mountain says:

    Do we have a right to know how close a farm is to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Etc.

    Yes, we do. That doesn’t mean food producers have an obligation to tell us, but if they don’t, we have the right to buy our food from those who will. And those who aren’t concerned with what’s in their food don’t have to exercise their right to know, but the right remains. The right to free speech does not require you to speak, and the right to keep and bear arms does not require you to carry a weapon. The existence of a right does not require that it be exercised.

    • Dylan says:

      I don’t quite understand. Monsanto repeatedly state they support voluntary labeling but not mandatory labeling. So are you in agreement with them. I think that’s what the debate is about.

      • Mountain says:

        Maybe. I’m debating whether we have a right to know, and I think it’s clear we do. Mandatory labeling seems like forced speech, which could only be justified if failure to label is so misleading that it interferes with a consumer’s right to know. I don’t find that argument convincing, but some people do.

        I guess as a practical matter, foods should be free to label themselves “GMO-free” and no one should interfere with that (which, shamefully, the USDA did by not approving that label for a decade). Concerned consumers should then assume that anything not labeled “GMO-free” contains GMOs.

        There are other issues, too, like GMO crops spreading into non-GMO fields, which seems like an issue the government is failing on. But that’s a separate issue.

  5. Mountain says:

    “The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets.”

    No, it doesn’t. We have the right to know what goes into our tarte au citron or our cola. If the pastry chef or Coca-Cola won’t divulge that information, we have the right to buy from someone who will. If no one will share that information, we can either realize that we’re demanding a ridiculous level of detail, or we can experiment in our own home until we are satisfied.

    There seems to be a failure to understand the difference between negative rights and positive rights. A negative right (like free speech) doesn’t require anyone to provide us with a printing press. The right to keep and bear arms doesn’t require anyone to provide us with guns.

    And so, our right to know what’s in our food doesn’t require the pastry chef or Coca-Cola, they just need to not interfere with our pursuit (say, by providing false or misleading information).

    • John T. Maher says:

      There is no such thing as a “legitimate trade secret”

      Free Trade Agreements will soon render this debate moot: GMO labeling will not be allowed once TPP and TAFTA are fully implemented.

      • Mountain says:

        I was using James’ words, and considered questioning whether there is such a thing as a legitimate trade secret, but chose to remain focused on the right to know.

        • John T. Maher says:

          Start with the conditions under which “right(s)” exist or should not exist and who and what is excluded and harmed by the assertion of such rights. This requires a distinction between individual rights and collective rights and responsibilities.

          Got a Kale recipe? Been steaming it every day and my attempt to switch to oil oil, lemon, salt sauté has not prove fruitful.

          • Mountain says:

            I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me, but who is excluded or harmed by the assertion of a right to know?

          • Mountain says:

            I think kale is delightful sautéed with salt, garlic, a little cayenne, and a little cumin. Squeezing lemon on sautéed kale is for suckers.

            Fresh kale, chopped and drenched with olive oil and balsamic, and mixed with salad regulars (onions, tomatoes, cukes, etc) is also delicious. Squeezing a lemon on this fresh kale salad isn’t necessary, but it isn’t a sucker’s move, either.

          • VeganGMO says:

            Catch up with this:
            The Right to Know What I’m Eating | The Food Ethics Blog

          • John T. Maher says:

            Thanks all for the kale recipes. Will be cooking them in sequence from Sunday forward.

            M you misunderstand me: I am in favor of community “right to know” laws concerning environmental point source pollution and other environmental causation (such as Gobi desert dust in Colorado) and other and full disclosure of almost everything, to which the government, in effect, claims monopoly through data hijacks and harvesting, email and phone intercepts.

          • Mountain says:

            My apologies for any misunderstanding. Enjoy the kale.

  6. Ena Valikov says:

    Hello James.

    No disrespect, but your history degree doesn’t qualify you to judge medical harm. I have seen no evidence that you are capable of analyzing the science on safety, and your argument that Science Organization X, Y, Z said so is simply lazy.
    The rest of your circuitous reasoning wasted ten minutes of my life.
    Please take my name off your blog–unsubscribe me, because I can’t find the unsubscribe link and don’t intend to waste any more time reading your rants.

    Thanks very much

  7. Elaine Brown says:

    In the early part of this century, the research scientists who were researching the effects of GMOs were one after another forced out of their research. Sometimes they were fired, in other cases their research grants were withdrawn. This was a pretty clear indication that there were problems with GMOs. And that is good enough for me.

    If you do not want to be subjected to unhealthy foods, turn your yard into a garden. I have a large garden and an orchard. I am lucky enough to have the space, but anyone who owns their home can raise tomatoes instead of grass.

    It is true that we cannot eat wholly out of pots on our patio, but we can cut down on the risk of polluted and contaminated or engineered foods by growing our own subject of course to the quality of our water supply.

    • Mountain says:

      Growing your own food is a great idea that more people should take seriously. In addition to assuring you that you’re eating healthy food, it’s also one of the few ways to ensure that you don’t kill field animals. Assuming you don’t spray chemicals or use heavy machinery on your own garden, you’re producing food that is as close as possible to free from harm.

      Most people can’t grow all of their own food, but most can grow some.

  8. Dave says:

    Another thought to consider which is similar and yet different to the “right to know” is the source of blood at a blood bank. When someone needs to receive a blood transfusion, is it their right to know whose blood they are receiving? The current view is “no” because the donated blood has been tested and shown to be safe. If yes, this would likely lead to fewer people donating blood, which is not a good outcome.

    The similarity to the “right to know” debate regarding food labeling is interesting. GMO crops have been extensively studied and found to be safe. GMO ingredients have been in our food stream for nearly 20 years with no documented ill-effect on human health. If mandatory food labeling is enacted, and, especially, if the public is confused over what is safe to eat, the private sector investment in research to increase crop yields will diminish leading to stagnant crop yields and the inability to feed a growing population.

    So, should we label blood with the name of the donor so the recipient knows? Should we label blood with the donor’s name even though it has already been shown to be safe which could potentially result in fewer people donating blood? Likewise, should we label food with GMO ingredients that have already been shown to be safe? If this is done and there is a backlash leading to stagnant yields and global instability with regards to food supply and food security, who should be held accountable?

    My conclusion for both blood and GMO foods is if it is safe, then I don’t need to know where it came from or what is in it.

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