To date we at The Lugar Center have not been directly engaged in the current debates over labeling of genetically engineered foods. Most of our time is spent on supporting policies and approaches that promote global food security. But there is a strong connection between the two and one that is not getting the attention it deserves. Proponents of labeling argue that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food. Agreed. They also believe that once shoppers know something is genetically engineered, they will avoid it. This may or may not be true. Certainly the experience with non-GMO Cheerios does not bear this out.
But, clearly the intent of calling for labeling transparency is to continue demonizing genetic engineering. Why do I say this? Because labeling proponents ignore the USDA Certified Organic label. Under its National Organic Program that certifies organic farm operations and the labeling of organic processed foods, organic is defined as not including genetically modified ingredients. Here is how the USDA website describes the organic label --
Organic farmers, ranchers, and food processors follow a defined set of standards to produce organic food and fiber. Congress described general organic principles in the Organic Foods Production Act, and the USDA defines specific organic standards. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives.
Organic farms and processors:
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
- Support animal health and welfare
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
- Only use approved materials
- Do not use genetically modified ingredients
- Receive annual onsite inspections
- Separate organic food from non-organic food
It seems therefore that the existing label is clear and that a better consumer education program is called for. So if GMO opponents really want to just inform the public, you would think they would embrace the organic label, and if they think it is deficient in any way, work to improve it. That they are not, and instead calling for a duplicative second label, demonstrates that their agenda extends far beyond transparency.
So what are the international implications of a continued push for an additional non-GMO label? When other nations see the United States, with its long history of embracing science and innovation, reject a technology that multiple studies have found no link to health problems, then they feel justified to do the same. A number of countries have restrictions on either the importation or cultivation of GM foods using the precautionary principle. That is, an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain as distinguished from risk assessment that seeks to define the likelihood of a specified negative event or outcome.
The problem is that trying to feed a world population expected to top 9 billion by 2050 will be virtually impossible without genetic engineering. This is even more important when we consider that wealthier and urbanized populations will require higher protein diets that increase the need for growing feed crops. At the same time, the effects of climate change are undermining farm productivity. Genetically engineered seeds help crops cope with drought situations and studies have shown that they reduce the use of pesticides by as much as 37 percent. The technology is being used to improve the nutritional value of a number of crops such as cassava, rice and bananas.
The anti-GMO movement ignores the plight of farmers around the world who would not have the ability to choose the technology that makes sense for their situations. Let me be clear – I am not saying that all farmers should use genetically engineered seeds, just as I’m not calling for the domination of monoculture. But all farmers should be allowed to make educated decisions on the best path for their farm’s productivity and their own income.
Lydia Sasu, a farmer in Ghana, writes eloquently here –
We would do better for ourselves and our customers if we could grow more and better cassava—and the best opportunities for improvement come from advanced technology. GM plays an important role in improved agriculture production. Providing farmer education, including the provision of reliable extensions officers, are critical tools needed given that the majority of small holder farmers in Africa are illiterate or semi-illiterate. To prevent people from living in hunger, we need all of these tools.
Disagreements on how we view genetic engineering domestically have huge implications for the ability of farmers to feed an ever growing and hungry world. Seeking new U.S. government regulations and labels that are duplicative of existing ones deprives the U.S. of its position as the world leader in agriculture science and puts people in the rest of the world at risk of having any food to choose from at all.
Dr. Connie Veillette is a Senior Fellow in global food security and aid effectiveness at The Lugar Center.