Paul Holmes 18 Apr 2014 // 12:25AM GMT
On most issues, I would consider the Grocery Manufacturers Association to be one of the most thoughtful and responsible of Washington trade associations, but on one key issue the GMA is at least half wrong. In opposing a new bill that would make Vermont the first state to require the labeling of any food product containing genetically-modified organisms, the GMA is taking a stand against a couple of important principles—transparency and informed consent—and essentially sending an unpalatable message to consumers: trust us, even though we don’t trust you. To be fair, the GMA’s argument that the Vermont bill would “set the nation on a costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies” is at least arguably true, but its support for bipartisan federal legislation, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, HR 4432, which would require a label on foods containing GM ingredients only if the FDA determines there is a health or safety risk. The association argues that “GM crops are safe and have important benefits for people and our planet. They use less water and fewer pesticides, reduce crop prices… and can help us feed a growing global population…. The FDA, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and US National Academy of Science have all found that foods and beverages that contain GM ingredients are safe and materially no different than conventionally produced products.” Even if that’s true—and I am personally convinced that it is—there are at least a couple of things wrong with the GMA’s argument. The first is that a health or safety risk to consumers is only one of the reasons that people might choose to avoid GM foods. They might be concerned about the potential environmental impact of GMOs; they might believe that some farmers are being compelled to use GMOs; they might have religious objections. But the fact is that the reason people want to know whether their food was produced using GMOs is irrelevant. If people want that information, the food industry needs make an extremely compelling argument that it is in the public interest to keep people in the dark—and as yet, I don’t see one. The fear that consumers might make ill-informed or irrational decisions about foods labeled as containing GM is not a compelling argument—it’s an excuse for the industry to avoid an open and honest and transparent discussion about the issue. If the industry genuinely believes in the safety and benefits of its product—“have important benefits for people and our planet”—it should be eager for such a discussion. By avoiding that debate, the industry is sending a signal that it doesn’t trust consumers to make the “right” choice based on that discussion. At the same time, it is asking people to trust the industry (and regulators) to produce food that is safe for both consumers and the environment. At a time when citizens expect increased transparency, that kind of trust has to be a two-way street.