Before I get to the part of this post where everybody starts hating me, I just want to say that I think Genetically Modified Organisms (better known as "GMOs") are a horrible idea for our food supply.
Life on this planet has evolved over millions of years to create a delicate balance between we animals and the food we need to survive. To go mucking around with this balance by modifying the gene sequence of a crop so that it's stronger, more virile, tastier, and bug-resistance, is reckless, dangerous, and probably immoral. I don't care what the FDA says, we simply do not know enough about GMO foods to declare them "safe"... and the consequences of consuming such products could have dire health consequences that won't become clear for generations. The fact that numerous countries outside the USA consider GMOs to be unhealthy and have restricted their use (or outright banned them) should be a serious wake-up call to Americans about the foods we eat. Especially considering that a shocking 80% of processed foods in this country are estimated to contain GMO ingredients.
To put it another way, if you live in the USA and are not at least a little concerned about the GMOs that are plaguing our food supply with unknown consequences, you need to pull your head out of your ass.
Given my serious objections to the use of GMOs in our foodstuffs, you would think that I would be a big supporter of Washington State's Initiative 522... which would require all (non-exempt) GMO foods to be clearly and conspicuously labeled on the front of the package.
And yet... I am not.
Or rather I was not, because it looks like the initiative failed to get the votes it needed.
There are a lot of reasons I think that 522 is/was a bad piece of legislation.
First of all, have you actually read the thing? I have. It's just so absurdly written that after trying to parse my way through it... three times... I was left looking for the benefit to consumers. It's so inconsistent and incomplete as to be laughable. Genetically-modified fruits and vegetables would require labeling. But a steak coming from a cow that has been fed nothing but a diet of genetically-modified foods from birth to slaughter would not. This alone makes 522 a complete joke. If consumers believe everything GMO is labeled, and their meat choices were not, they would naturally assume that the meat had no GMOs. But here's the rub... if GMOs are so horrible for the health of people that it should be labeled, wouldn't it also be so horrible for the health of cows that any product coming from that cow should also be labeled? And what about fast food restaurants, arguably one of the biggest movers of GMO foods in existence? Oh... never mind... they are exempt from labeling laws! I mean, come on! This is absurd. Unless everything is labeled, then labeling a selected subset of our food supply renders the whole idea of forced-labeling for "The Public's Right to Know!" useless. And don't hand me this bullshit about "Something is better than nothing" and "It's a good start" because that is the stupidest damn response I've ever heard. That's the equivalent of saying "THREE OF THESE FOUR FOODS WILL KILL YOU! But we're only going to label ONE of them BECAUSE THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO KNOW!" And yet people buy into this crap hook, line, and sinker every time. Well, helpful hint... IT'S ALL OR NOTHING OR IT DOESN'T WORK!
Next up, the labeling is categorically unfair to manufacturers. And I'm not talking about the giant conglomerates like Kraft or Coca-Cola or Unilever or whatever... they manufacture such massively huge quantities of processed foods that making a packaging change would hardly cost a thing in the grand scheme of things. No, I'm talking about the thousands of small companies who sell food products in Washington State. To them, the cost of changing all their packaging (or adding a label to their existing packaging) is a pretty big expense. First of all, if they did go to the expense of changing their packaging (because it's cheaper than adding a label), odds are they would not be able to afford packaging exclusively for Washington State. Nope, the new packaging would be what they have to use to sell to all fifty states. So they would either A) Have to stop selling in Washington... or B) Have to splash "THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS GENETICALLY-MODIFIED INGREDIENTS" across their packaging, which would then have to sit on the shelf in California next to a competitor's product which doesn't say a damn thing about the GMOs in its contents... how is that fair? Well, it's not. I am sick and tired of people who consistently paint all food manufacturers as these massive corporations when it's decidedly not the case. Again, helpful hint... IT'S ALL (FIFTY STATES) OR NOTHING OR IT DOESN'T WORK!
And then... ultimately GMO labeling laws do nothing to help a significant portion of our society. Namely poor and elderly people who have to buy cheap food or they're not going to eat at all. Let's think about this for a minute. Say 522 gets passed, so a canned spaghetti manufacturer is forced to label their product because the noodles are made from GMO wheat and the tomatoes in the sauce are from GMO tomatoes. Now some 85-year old woman on a severely restricted income goes to the store and sees a can of friendly organic spaghetti at $2.69 sitting next to a can of scary GMO-laden spaghetti at $1.89. Do you honestly think she gives a flying fuck about GMOs when she barely has the money to buy food at all? But hey, at least she can make an informed buying decision! The process required to grow organic crops ain't cheap. And do you know why? Organic foods are ineligible for federal subsidies! That's right... apparently "organic" is categorized as some kind of "luxury" instead of a necessity... so organic farmers get no federal monies to help them out. So what they sell is actually the real cost of growing food. Take away the subsidies from Big Farm so they have to pay real costs, then make them responsible for the environmental impact of their business, then sit back and watch as GMO food prices increase to organic price levels. Hey, I have an idea! WHY DON'T WE ELIMINATE THE SUBSIDIES SO THERE'S A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD? Or, if we're going to do the whole subsidy thing, why not allow organic farmers to get a piece of the pork pie too? Then perhaps GMO labeling would actually mean something because consumers on fixed incomes would truly have a choice. Of course, taking on the demonic Special Interest Groups which work 24/7 to exclude small farmers from federal funding so Big Farm is consistently at an advantage won't be easy... and it sure as hell won't be cheap. Welcome to American politics!
Up next... GMOs, while certainly the subject of considerable concern, do not automatically make manufacturers, suppliers, or especially the farmers producing them... some kind of evil bastard out to kill you. Genetic modification is not something that is done for fun. There's a reason behind it. One significant "advance" (assumably) to food production was modifying plants to survive drought conditions. Questionable? Yes. Unhealthy? Possibly. But evil? Every time I see somebody play the "Evil Card," my eyes roll so far back in my head that they are in real danger of getting stuck there. Sure, I can buy into a corporation like Monsanto being evil... hell, they are beyond evil for the heinous shit they do... but using such inflammatory words to turn public opinion against farmers who are just trying to make a living by using seeds they are told are perfectly safe by the FDA? That just makes you an irresponsible asshole, NOT some kind of champion of the people.
And now, for the big gun... GMO labeling is completely unnecessary. Shocker, I know, but it's totally true! Do you know why? Because non-GMO and organic products are super trendy and hot right now. It's the fastest growing segment of food production by far because consumer demand is growing by leaps and bounds every day. Which means manufacturers who sell products without GMO ingredients would be insanely stupid to not make that claim as huge as possible on their packaging. And guess what? Manufacturers who sell products without GMO ingredients are not insanely stupid. THEY ARE ALREADY LABELING THEIR PACKAGING AS ORGANIC AS HUGE AS POSSIBLE! There's even symbols for organic certified products and non-GMO products to identify them. Hell, even pet food manufacturers let you know when their products are organic! There's so much "green" in the supermarket now-a-days, there's no way you can miss the organic bandwagon everybody is hopping on...
So, seriously, think about it. IF SOMETHING ISN'T LABELED AS "ORGANIC" OR "NON-GMO" THEN IT'S GOING TO CONTAIN GMO INGREDIENTS! This is all the information that shoppers need to make an informed buying decision if they are concerned about GMOs in the food they buy. But if this is the case, and people already know how to identify non-GMO foods, then why the big push to label products containing GMO ingredients? Because information by omission is just not good enough for the anti-GMO advocates. They want to scare people into buying organic, non-GMO foods with labeling laws because fear is the easiest way to manipulate the masses to supporting your agenda. It always has been. "But wait!" you may be saying, "Isn't that a good thing? GMOs are bad, right? So scaring people into eating healthier is okay!" Except... no. It's not. Leading people to make informed buying decisions is what's okay. Scaring them into doing your bidding... no matter how altruistic... is not okay. Should not be okay. Which brings me to the most damning condemnation of Initiative 522 yet... if you are so fucking concerned about GMO foods, then spend the money to educate people instead of manipulating them. Granted, there are going to be people too damn stupid or ignorant to get the message, but it's not like they were candidates for using mandatory labeling in the first place. Which brings us to...
Lastly (well, not "lastly"... I could go on and on here), Initiative 522 was destined to fail, so wasting millions of dollars trying to pass it is/was categorically stupid. Seriously, who thought that GMO abusers like Monsanto were just going to sit on their hands and do nothing while their bread and butter was being challenged? Anyone? Anyone? Of course not. Monsanto pumped millions of dollars into a counter-campaign, completely dominating the political landscape with their limitless funds. There was no question... none... that Monsanto and its confederates would spend whatever money necessary to smash Initiative 522 to pieces. And, given how incredibly badly the legislation was written, it's not like there wasn't boatloads of opportunities to turn public opinion to their favor. Initiative 522 was just a colossal waste of time and money and that's my biggest problem. Just think of what could have been done with all that cash wasted on an unwinnable battle!
And now is where you are probably saying to yourself... "Wow, Dave... if you were so dead-set against Initiative 522, why didn't you write this BEFORE the ballots were cast?"
Simple... I just didn't want the drama. There are many, many, hard-core advocates of GMO labeling (some of them good friends of mine), and dealing with the fall-out of writing an inflammatory opinion piece (no matter how unintentional) was more than I wanted on my plate. In my heart, I knew that 522 was going to fail (too much was at stake for Big Farm for it not to) and so what would be the point?
In closing, I'd just like to say that my opinion about genetic modification in our food supply still stands... we should not be doing it. Recklessly defying the millions of years of evolution and adaptation it took to get where we are is the height of hubris, and the possible consequences are just too dire. We need to spend more time and money trying to figure out how to get our food back to the natural state our bodies have evolved to consume instead of trying to solve our food supply problems with potentially hazardous genetic modification. We also need to spend more time and money educating people as to why this is important. Initiative 522 was never about either of those things. It was a mis-use of funds for a campaign of manipulation, unfairness, and inevitable failure that distracted people from what is truly important. Even worse, once all the cards have been counted it probably set back the cause of the pro-organic foods movement.
That's a shame, really. But it's not like politics ever aspire to be anything more than that now-a-days.
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What I consider a crime against humanity with regard to GMOs is the intentional production of plants with sterile seeds. That’s pretty much knowingly creating the potential to one day being left with no seeds at all when there is an unforseen effect resulting in production failure.
Allowing companies to do this (along with pursuing the morally bankrupt concept of suing neighboring farmers for license issues who don’t even use the GMO but rather have the seeds flying onto their crops with the wind) is something that sadly doesn’t seem to cause a massive public outrage.
More and more, I keep reading that we should eat more like our grandparents did instead of how our parents (and we as children) did. Like this article.
I like eating food with GMO ingredients because I assume that eventually I’ll get X-men-like powers.
Excellent observation and commentary, Dave!