It’s Time to Label GMOs

Why We Need to Move Biotech Out of the Shadows

In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.

I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labeling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.

But first, let’s be clear why this matters: I strongly believe that biotechnology is an essential part of the toolbox to feed the world sustainably in the future. We need crops that are resistant to new diseases, that can cope with a changing climate, and that enable us to feed an increasing human population while minimizing the environmental impact of agriculture.

GMOs can deliver on some, though by no means all, of this challenge. They can increase nitrogen use efficiency. They can deliver disease and pest resistance without the need for large-scale applications of agrochemicals. They can increase productivity and thereby spare land for nature even as we work to double food production by mid-century. And they can address challenges coming at us from global warming such as thermal tolerance limits and drought and flood problems also.

Let’s be clear also at the outset that there is no scientific case to be made for labeling. Foods containing GMOs or GM-derived products are no less safe than their conventional alternatives – there is as strong a scientific consensus on this issue as there is on many comparable issues like the science of climate change.

This is the considered opinion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, and all other relevant expert groups. There is no safety case and no health case against the current GMOs that are available.

Indeed, GMOs may well be safer than their conventional alternatives. There is a lot of published science which shows, for example, that GMO Bt corn – because it has less insect damage – is typically lower in carcinogenic mycotoxins than the alternatives. Organic corn may be very high in terms of this particular risk, in contrast.

If GMOs are banned worldwide, as many activists are seeking, we will be asking the scientific community to face the next few decades – perhaps the most critical in humanity’s existence – with their hands tied behind their backs. We will have denied our plant breeders the use of a powerful technology for sustainability and food security, and we will have foreclosed an important and growing area of human knowledge. This cannot and must not be allowed to happen.

And let there be no mistake: banning biotech is the explicit agenda of many pro-labeling activists. They talk about consumer choice, but what they actually want is to remove all choice. They want what I call prohibition based on superstition.

As Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association has said, “If we pass this initiative [the labeling law in California] we will be well on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s supply for good.” Having a GMO label, Cummins thinks, is a “kiss of death” for any iconic brand like Kelloggs.

Now, as we know, much of the funding and drive behind these GMO labeling campaigns has come from the organic lobby. And I have to hand it to them: this is good old-fashioned American capitalism, red in tooth and claw. If you can demonize your competitor’s products, then you can increase the market share of your own alternatives, even if they cost more and don’t deliver what you claim they will.

And of course, the pro-labeling advocates don’t want the systems to be workable, which is why they are completely comfortable with a patchwork of state initiatives, which by any judgment would be a mess and cause havoc and raise costs throughout the food supply chains. They want to wreck biotechnology, and any collateral damage is just fine with them. Affordable food is no priority for the anti-GMO lobby.

But let’s also be honest about why they will likely win in Washington, and why the pro-labeling campaign has successfully changed the debate in the last couple of years, not just in the US but further afield too.

The reason is very simple. They have come up with a winning argument. It may be bad science, but it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food? On just about any issue, if you stood on a street corner and asked people whether they wanted to know what was in their food, most people would sign up. People don’t want to be taken for fools, and don’t want to be denied knowledge that other people tell them is important, particularly when it comes to something as emotive as what you eat.

With labeling, the anti’s have discovered a clever wedge issue that levers ordinary people – who don’t necessarily share the naturalistic ideology and anti-capitalist worldview of the activists – onto their side. It’s a ‘right to know,’ one of the most powerful political demands of our time.

It seems so reasonable that almost everyone I talk to who isn’t deeply involved in the pro-biotech argument agrees with it – of course people have a right to know what is in their food.

It is also a triumph of framing. The framing of the issue is exactly the one the anti’s want – secretive big business lining up against consumer advocates trying to deny ordinary people the right to information about that most basic of human necessities, food.

And of course, Monsanto and the other big companies have fallen right into this trap – not, I’m told, because they are stupid, but because they saw no alternative. They were already fighting a rearguard battle on ground established by their opponents.

So in both California and Washington State we have Monsanto and others pouring tens of millions into a campaign that to all outward appearances is desperately trying to stop people knowing where their products are being used. Can you imagine a better opportunity for the fear mongers: ‘Why won’t Monsanto let us know what is in our food? What are they trying to hide?’

What indeed? Any reasonable person would respond. Just think of the psychology this provokes: ‘If you say these GMO foods are so safe, why won’t you tell us which products and brands contain them?’ The science here is irrelevant – the framing of this issue means the focus remains squarely on big corporations and food safety, which is exactly the ground the anti’s are most comfortable on.

Academic work on social psychology is absolutely clear here, and to me is the killer argument: if people think you are hiding something from them, they will inevitably perceive whatever it is you are hiding as more risky. Why? Because why else would you be hiding it, if it weren’t dangerous?

Similarly, people perceive more risk when they don’t feel in control; when they don’t feel they have a choice. And attempts by experts at reassurance may even be counter-productive because they heighten the sense that people themselves are not being allowed to judge, and that men in white coats in their laboratories have something to hide.

So people are getting increasingly scared of GMOs precisely because the industry is fighting a rearguard battle not to tell people which foodstuffs contain them. This has to be the worst PR strategy ever: Can you think of a single analogy where an industry uses every media tool, every electoral and legal avenue possible to stop people knowing where their own products are used?

This is the opposite of advertising – instead of telling people about the benefits of your product and encouraging them to seek it out, you have to smuggle your core products into peoples’ shopping baskets so that they can only buy them either unknowingly or by mistake. Does anyone here think this is a winning strategy? If so, please raise your hands.

I’ve said before that the anti-GMO case is essentially a conspiracy theory, and this is perfect conspiracy theory fodder, because you appear to have big business conniving to defeat democratic ballots which simply seek to give people a tiny bit of useful information – a label.

Just how failing an argument this is was brought home to me dramatically after a recent talk I gave in India. I had been making a strong pro-choice argument: to me it seemed – it still seems – morally objectionable that hundreds of millions of farmers are denied a choice of what crops to grow because of the legal machinations of a tiny number of ideologically-motivated activists in New Delhi. With the single very successful exception of cotton, GMOs are banned in India.

After my speech an Indian scientist, who worked in biotech himself for a public university, came up to me and said: ‘You talk about farmer choice, but what about consumer choice? You cannot oppose labeling, because that is inconsistent – choice goes both ways.’

I couldn’t think of a convincing counter-argument then and I can’t think of one now. Consumer right to know, however unjustifiable on scientific grounds, is an argument that – once a critical mass of people are demanding it – it is be political suicide to oppose.

However, simply giving in is not an option either. Having different laws in every state would indeed be a short cut to prohibition, which is exactly why the labeling activists have chosen it as their strategy.

So those of us who want to defend science and who understand the true potential of biotechnology have no option – we have to change the game. My challenge to the biotechnology industry – the whole food industry in general in fact – is very clear. You have to stop opposing labeling. Instead, you have to embrace the consumer right to know.

To lose this entire debate to a motley coalition of anti-vaccine quacks, organic food charlatans, naturopathic nutjobs, and magic soap manufacturers would not just be a tragedy for humanity, it would be frankly rather embarrassing. This cannot be allowed to happen.

In short: you cannot, you should not, fight against democracy. What consumers want is transparency – and you must deliver this to them. Do not dig yourselves deeper into the wrong side of a winning argument.

Transparency is the only way to rebuild trust. Trust cannot be bought via PR campaigns, trust can only be earned. The best way to earn trust is through full transparency, and – this point is crucial – this transparency cannot only be on terms that you set yourself.

That means that if sufficient people say they want to know something, you must tell them. You cannot take refuge in saying that the experts agree that they don’t need to know.

So – it’s time to make a virtue out of a necessity. If enough people say that GMOs should be labeled, then labeled they must be. So let’s think how this can be done, and moreover how it can present some opportunities to shift this debate in a more sensible and science-based direction.

And maybe, just maybe, the most powerful weapon the anti’s have in their arsenal will ultimately turn out to be their Achilles heel.

The first thing to get clear is that labeling must be industry-wide, and to my mind that means it must be operated at the federal level, and it must be mandatory. If it is voluntary, then no one will do it. Which food company is going to offer their lead brand as a sacrificial lamb to test the market for consumer preferences on GMOs?

They would suffer a first-mover disadvantage that would stop this ever happening. So it must be brought in at federal level, not just for this reason, but also to supersede the patchwork of state-level regulations that will otherwise cause havoc across the entire food sector.

Second, there must be a way to design labeling so that there is no implication that there is a health and safety case for it. In other words, this is not a warning label. It is an information label purely to support choice and the exercise of consumer preference.

Thirdly, labeling must be across the board. It must be process-based. It does not matter whether there are any residues of modified DNA in the finished product, so it must include derivatives: sugar, oil, and other products that are chemically identical to non-GMO alternatives.

Yes – this means we would be labeling beer, cheese, drugs even. It means we would be labeling meat and dairy if the animals were fed with GM feed. It means, according to estimates I have heard, that 80 percent of food products on the shelves would be labeled.

Why will this work? Because it is the only option which satisfies the basic demand of consumer right to know. There would be no more hidden GMOs, nothing for the conspiracy theorists to scaremonger about, no more fears to play on. Consumers could choose, based on labels clearly identifiable on the packaging of all foods on the supermarket shelves.

I believe that this could radically change the game on GMOs. Suddenly they would be ubiquitous – as indeed they already have been for 15 years. Secrecy breeds fear. Familiarity brings acceptance and understanding.

Indeed, ubiquity is surely the industry’s safest refuge. Halfway houses mean that products and sectors could be picked off one by one by determined activist campaigns. If soy products are labeled, but oils are not, then the brand risk will be too high and manufacturers will go non-GMO. That is what the activists want, of course, and is precisely why the state initiatives contain so many exemptions – not to make them workable, but to make them unworkable, and therefore Trojan horses for prohibition.

Some have proposed non-GMO labeling, which already exists as a voluntary standard. Perhaps, analogous to the organic sector, this could be brought to the federal level via USDA standards, perhaps combined with some legislation that would supersede future state laws.

To my mind, this is both illogical and unworkable. Firstly, it doesn’t satisfy the consumer right-to-know argument. It merely implies that anything without a label is almost certainly GMO – but in that case why not go the whole hog and simply be explicit? Why hide?

Moreover, anything that appeared to supersede state laws without satisfying the right-to-know demand would be a political minefield. I predict that it would take less than five minutes for it to be dubbed a Monsanto Protection Act mark II.

The only way state law can be superseded is if the essential demands underlying the electoral ballot initiatives are satisfied at federal level, making further state action both unnecessary and obtrusive.

So: no halfway houses – we have to get this debate out of the way. Then we can start to move into a different space, one where once consumers are familiar with the fact that GMOs are in most of their foods, they realize that this technology is both safe and that it can deliver some things they really want.

These include, as I said at the beginning: the use of less insecticide on a crop; the retention of more carbon in the soil; higher productivity and therefore less land use; water and nitrogen use efficiency, and many others.

Instead of hiding biotechnology and hoping people forget about its purported pitfalls, we could bring it out into the open and begin to sell it on its merits. The truth is that biotech is probably the only way to achieve what organic advocates want – to produce food sustainably without the use of increasing amounts of agrochemicals.

That is why in the longer term I want to see the industry restructured, so that biotech can be a truly disruptive technology, undermining the markets for crop protection chemicals. I want to see the biotechnology industry separated from the crop protection industry. Let the biologists and the chemists fight it out in the marketplace!

But we can only do this once openness and transparency is established, and where the benefits and risks of different technologies can be assessed and discussed in an evidence-based and scientific way.

To get to that point will require a game-changing plan, one that gets biotechnology out of the shadows and into the limelight where it belongs. If we truly believe that this technology has so much potential, we should be shouting about it from the rooftops.

Labels, therefore, can be our friends. Perhaps the labeling debate, therefore, presents not risk, but opportunity. As FDR said, in his famous quote, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Never was that more apposite than in the case of GMOs.

Today everyone I speak to, whether scientists, food industry, farmers or whatever, are scared of the fears of others. We who understand the benefits of this technology must stop being scared of the fears of those who don’t.

I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, but I predict that these fears will not be borne out. Let’s shine a light, and let the people decide. That, after all, is what not just free markets, but surely also democracy demands.

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer based in the United Kingdom. He is author of The God Species and winner of the 2012 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. This article was originally a speech delivered to the Center for Food Integrity Summit in Chicago on October 15, 2013.