Washington State’s Initiative 522 would require products containing genetically engineered (GE) food to carry a label. Other states and countries have passed or have considered similar legislation. I’m not against food manufacturers choosing to label their foods. But requiring speech by businesses large and small isn’t something a government should embark upon lightly. GE food, in my opinion, doesn’t meet the bar necessary to mandate something like this. Moreover, in the case of Washington State’s initiative, there are numerous design flaws that would result in terrible outcomes, most notably for the poor and small businesses.
In order to determine whether it’s a reasonable use of the government’s power to force food manufacturers to label GE food, we need to ask ourselves at least a couple of questions. Is there a public safety case surrounding GE food that would justify this use of force? And is the private sector not delivering solutions that would address any safety concerns on its own, which would make the use of government force unnecessary?
On the first question, there is no evidence that GE foods are unsafe, as Belgian scientist and winner of the 2013 World Food Prize Marc Van Montagu wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. “[P]eople have consumed billions of meals containing GM foods in the 17 years since they were first commercialized, and not one problem has been documented.” It’s telling that on Washington State’s “Yes on 522” campaign website, I can’t find a single reference to there being a public safety risk from these products. That’s hardly surprising because the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have found GE crops safe for humans and beneficial for the environment.
Moreover, the world has benefited enormously from the development of these products. As Van Montagu wrote:
Society, the economy and the environment have benefited enormously from GM crops. India has flipped from cotton importer to exporter because of insect-resistant cotton. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have stimulated no-tillage farming, reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. Insect-resistant GM crops have cut insecticide sprayings by more than 25%—and as much as sevenfold in some parts of India. In developing countries, GM crops have helped ensure food security and bolster incomes for farmers, allowing parents to focus more resources on other priorities, such as educating their children.
Given that there seems to be no public safety case to mandate labeling of GE food, the second question around whether the private sector is addressing GE concerns is moot. However, I’m sympathetic to people who, regardless of the science behind GE safety, would like to know what’s in their food. And the fact is that for those who prefer not to consume GE food, or would prefer to limit its consumption, there are plenty of food manufacturers and grocery stores that certify their products are organic, contain no GE products or otherwise provide information about their origins and contents.
People have tried to read a lot into where funding is coming from for the different campaigns supporting or opposing Washington State’s initiative. I never get very excited about that sort of thing. It’s great that both sides are spending a lot of money debating and providing citizens information about what they’re voting on.
Sure, producers of GE foods are going to be against 522. Similarly, you can look at the supporters and figure out their motives pretty quickly. For example, PCC Natural Markets is a big supporter for obvious reasons. The Seattle Times stated it bluntly in its strongly worded editorial against labeling GE foods:
Confused consumers are a desirable bonus. Ominous labels must mean something is dicey, right?
Big Organic (B.O.) is hoping labeling will drive more consumers into their stores or to purchase their products. It’s disappointing that many of the same people supporting this initiative are the same people who usually stand up for science and are also anti-corporate welfare. However, supporters aren’t making the case that the FDA, American Medical Association, World Health Organization or others are wrong. Nor do they seem to care that in many ways this is a classic case of a class of businesses hoping to use government rather than their products and marketing to drive up their sales and profits. They’re not interested in a level playing field and duking it out with their competitors for consumers. Rather, they want the government to favor their special interests and skew the game for them.
It’s even more crazy that supporters are trying to pass this in a state and not at the federal level. Inevitably, if such a measure passes, society in Washington State will be all the more poorer. Many smaller businesses from both in and out of state that sell their products in Washington today won’t be able to afford to create special packaging and disrupt their current production lines. Instead, they’ll choose not to sell their products here. Ultimately, big businesses that can afford to create separate labels for Washington State will be the ones that prosper under this initiative. Once again, many of the backers of this proposal are usually found siding with small businesses and “buy local” types. Yet what they’re proposing would hurt these groups. And it would hurt the poor the most, because with less competition and the additional compliance costs brought on by this mandate, prices will be higher.
Let’s stick with using government force where it’s really needed. It’s not required here.