How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

(Photo: Daniel Lobo)

The American Medical Association resolved this week that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

The association has long-held that nothing about the process of recombinant DNA makes genetically engineered (GE) crop plants inherently more dangerous to the environment or to human health than the traditional crop plants that have been deliberately but slowly bred for human purposes for millennia. It is a view shared by the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., the European Commission, and countless other national science academies and non-governmental organizations.

And yet Californians will consider on their November ballots a law that mandates cigarette-like labeling of food derived from GE plants. Proponents claim to promote opportunities for consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat. But to build support for the measure, they have played on consumer fears about a promising technology that is nevertheless prone to “Frankenfoods” demagoguery. If successful, they may well imperil the ability of Californians, and consumers around the world, to choose a technology that scientists contend could end hunger and malnutrition, lift hundreds of millions from poverty, and reduce the environmental impact of feeding an evermore populous world.

 “Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat.” That was the conclusion of a 2003 inquiry by the International Council for Science, an NGO representing the national science academies of 140 countries, including the U.S. It is a finding repeatedly made by the U.S. National Research Council. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. EPA all regulate the use of genetically engineered plants in the U.S. according to a philosophy endorsed by the scientific community that the content and characteristics of plants and foods should govern their regulatory scrutiny, not the process by which they are made.

Voluntary certified organic labels already allow consumers to avoid GE foods. Given the dramatic fissure between scientific opinion and public perception—only one in four consumers thinks GE foods are “basically safe”—a mandatory labeling regime is likely only to cripple crop science by reducing market share and revenues to GE food producers. 

More devastating than the label itself, could be the cost of avoiding the label on non-GE foods that may nevertheless contain trace amounts of GE material. In the U.S., the highest-grade corn can contain as much as 2% foreign material, like crop residues. In Europe, a food product can contain as much as 0.9% genetically engineered material and avoid a GE label. But the California law would impose a nearly twice as stringent purity standard, tolerating only 0.5% GE content in non-GE food.

Such a high purity standard would likely require farmers to invest in separate planting, harvesting, storage, hauling, processing, and packaging equipment for GE production in order to avoid revenue losses and liability from contaminating their non-GE operations or those of competitors. Because the costs of risk reduction generally increase exponentially in the level of safety, California’s stringent purity standard may be a death sentence to GE producers who could spread the high fixed costs of contamination avoidance across only the low levels of production that the market would initially support. 

Facing diminished revenue prospects and high fixed costs to prevent even trace contamination, processors may abandon GE production altogether. Farmers would stop planting GE crops, and scientists would stop agricultural biotechnology research. Much as a decade-long moratorium on GE crops in Europe caused the agricultural biotechnology R&D pipeline to contract around the world, a labeling regime in the most populous state of the world’s most aggressive GE-adopting country could cause firms to shelve potentially life-saving innovations. Food prices would rise and consumer choice would be diminished.

Existing applications of agricultural biotechnology allow better control of pests by encoding plant DNA to either produce a naturally occurring and widely used insect toxin or generate immunity to a relatively low toxicity, broad spectrum herbicide marketed as Round-Up. By improving the control of insects or weeds, the technologies reduce crop damage, raising crop yields, lowering food prices, and saving natural habitat from cropland expansion.

An exhaustive review by the National Research Council in 2010 concluded that existing GE technologies reduce insecticide applications, support the substitution of low toxicity herbicides for more toxic alternatives, and encourage the use of no-till operations that reduce soil erosion and support soil carbon sequestration. They also permit double-cropping, a practice whereby farmers successively plant two crops per growing season, essentially doubling the productivity of existing land.

Forthcoming and prospective GE crops hold greater promise. They include staple crops with improved nutrient content to reduce malnutrition in the developing world and field crops that tolerate the climatic extremes experienced in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Norman Borlaug was the 20th century savior of the poor and hungry. Wearing coveralls and toiling in Mexican fields with conventional breeding techniques, he launched the Green Revolution and saved millions of lives, for which he received the Nobel Peace Price in 1970. His 21st century counterparts wear lab coats and stare into microscopes on university campuses and in the research departments of multinational corporations. They advance the same science to which Borlaug devoted his life and do work that he whole-heartedly endorsed unto his death. For many of today’s crop scientists, his goals are theirs. But their tools are better and their potential is greater. 

If only Californians will give them a chance.


No matter whether you think GE plants are dangerous: this article is pure industry lobbyism of the worst kind.

So people are wary of GE foods and are likely to choose not to buy them if they can clearly recognize them. How in HELL can you argue that giving them the ability to make that choice would LIMIT their choice?

How can anyone with an ounce of decency argue that the solution to the bad reputation of GE foods is to not let people know what products contain them?

If you think GE is safe, then *convince* people of that. With, you know, arguments.

Seminymous Coward

Everyone who intentionally buys organic food or wants to block GE food would rather they indulge their superstitions than poor people eat. It's a pity that our intuitive moral reasoning deals very poorly with effects which are insufficient immediate and visceral.

Mike B

This is where the Eco-Mentalists show themselves to be no different than the religious wrong. Granted it is a logical reaction to the decades of corporate propaganda that labeled everything from DDT to nuclear radiation as harmless indicators of "progress", but I think they forgot that studies have improved a lot since the 1950's. Of course a sizable part of the anti-GM lobby won't argue about the human safety, but will instead focus on all of the wider movie plot style threats that genetic engineering might cause like zombieism , but I guess what else should we expect in a state where decades of education cuts have resulted in Hollywood Science being the only science most Californians are exposed to.

Perhaps the best way to counteract this law is to require that ALL foods that have been modified from their wild states through ANY process of genetic manipulation get the GM label. This way all the hard core super-locovores can be super smug after they spend most of their daylight hours hunger-gathering their GM-free dinner. Hell, why stop there. Pet stores should alert people that they are purchasing genetically modified wolves.



Your analysis seems to have entirely ignored that people may wish to avoid GM food because they have reservations about companies like Monsanto owning patents to their food supply. The frankenfood argument is a red herring.

Seminymous Coward

Why, then, did these people decide to pursue a food labeling law instead of a revision to patent law?

Christina Chambronne

When you say "a technology that (…) could end hunger and malnutrition, lift hundreds of millions from poverty," I can only assume it is joke. Like there is not enough food in the world and the cause of hunger are not mostly caused by mishandle and the unfair distribution of available food!! May I suppose that "reduce[ing] the environmental impact of feeding an evermore populous world" is joke too?

Seminymous Coward

Crops that can grow anywhere people live would substantially ease distribution issues, and each step toward that goal would incrementally ease them. More crops that grow within easy distribution distance of people would also enhance those people's nutrition by varying their nutrient intake.

High-yielding crop varieties ease the environmental impact by allowing the world to be fed from less land. That allows more land for every other use, including parks and rainforests.

Melissa Belvadi

Did Monsanto ghost-write this article? If not, they might well have - it reads like a PR puff piece. Opposition to GMOs isn't just about concerns about the health of the food itself, just as objections to foie gras isn't about the fat content. There are huge environmental and moral issues surrounding how the GMO companies have conducted themselves, bullied and lied to farmers, destroyed the value of organic pest control methods that have worked for decades by appropriating then overusing them - the list of non-nutrition related reasons to oppose GMOs as currently marketed (not necessarily the technology in the abstract, which is what the AMA endorsed) is overwhelming if you take the time to learn about it.

And as another commenter touched on, the claim that it's about feeding the world's poor is absolutely laughable, not only because there's already plenty of actual food (malnutrition is about distribution and poverty, not quantity of food on the planet), but because an analysis of the actual business practices of the GMO companies makes it clear that they're designing products that serve the interests of huge American agribusinesses, not third world farmers, and often at the expense of third world farmers. The global food issue is enormously more complicated than "we need to grow more food".



If you're going to describe the law as requiring "cigarette-like labeling of food derived from GE plants", you probably should not link to the actual details of the law, which clearly state that the label must say nothing more than "Genetically engineered", or "Partially produced with genetic engineering." I have not looked at a madated cigarette warning label recently, but I believe they contain more than "Contains nicotine and tar."

It's surprising when advocates for free markets, which depend on free information, go crazy about increasing information to participants. If the labels are inaccurate, then you have a case. But if your argument is that the labels are generally accurate but will be incorrectly interpreted by consumers to mean something they don't, the you're in a curious position. Are market participants too stupid to decide these things for themselves? Must we rely on what the agro-businesses and scientific organizations conclude we should fill our maw with? Yet such people go crazy if a mayor proposes to restrict access to large servings of sugar water with clear negative impacts on our health.

We're not talking here about irrational ideas on vaccinations which impact the lives of children with no say in the matter either way. Nobody is suggesting that non-GE foods are somehow less safe in general. So why do you distrust the consumer so in this matter? Instead of worrying about how people may misapply this information, why don't you just try to educate them? Maybe, as a commenter above suggests, some people choose to avoid GE foods for moral or political reasons, not health reasons.

And let's get off the guilt trip about poor people here. Name a commercially available genetically engineered crop whose engineering has led to greater crop yield or nutritional value. There is little evidence that Monsanto or other companies have any interest in these things. Their interest lies in selling more pesticide (an interesting side effect of which is the evolution of pests resistant to their pesticides... I wonder if they'll patent them too) and locking farmers into their seeds. I see no moral obligation to defend them. Crops which farmers cannot legally seed next year without paying royalties are not what is going to feed the starving masses of the world.




Let's get real here--Monsanto has as much genuine concern for solving world hunger as McDonald's and Coca Cola do.

Besides--if GMO foods are so undeniably awesome, why not view this as a fabulous marketing opportunity? Just like companies prominently display "organic", "recycled," etc., on their packaging, these companies just need a better PR push: "This product was made from crops genetically engineered by Monsanto to increase nutrition, decrease the use of water and other scarce resources, limit pesticides, and help end world hunger. Enjoy it proudly and in good health."


I avoid the whole problem by eating Paleo
No grains (GMO or otherwise) are good for you

Tony Williamson

If GMO food is such a obvious blessing to humanity , why are its producers afraid to label it ? Put a bright shiny gold star on your miracle food and let people choose.


I thought I was reading a Monsanto press release.


Let's get real for a second. First, when you consider what goes into many commercially-processed foods already - and is required to be listed on the label - what are the chances that a GMO label would deter any significant fraction of the public?

Second, the only way GMOs would have a long-term effect on hunger, malnutrition, and such is if they could be engineered to contain birth-control hormones.


I just love the rush to call shill by the lovely commenters. Never mind all of the citations here of scientific organizations around the world that have found the technology to be safe and potentially beneficial to humans in a variety of ways. I suppose all of those scientists have been manipulated by Monsanto? If you really think any group of humans could organize that widespread of a hush campaign, you may want to reexamine your threshold for evidence.


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