The Senate will soon be voting on a bill that will require mandatory labeling of food products produced by genetic engineering. Farm Bureau and most farm groups have long opposed mandatory labeling, arguing correctly that there was no reason for a label that tells the consumer absolutely nothing about the safety, nutritional content, taste or moral character of the product being labeled. Even so, farm groups, including American Farm Bureau, are nearly unanimous in support of the compromise bill.
Which brings to mind my wife, who is nearly perfect in every way and yet 39 years ago signed on to a life with a mate who is less than perfect. She’s too much of a realist to think she could change me for the better, but that realism must have, and I’ve never had the courage to ask, must have convinced her that I was the best on offer. Like the old country song, she just made the best of a bad situation. And it’s turned out well, leading to three children we love and six perfect grandchildren. Never let it be said that she made perfect the enemy of good enough, and farm groups have reluctantly come to the same conclusion.
Numbers tell the story. Survey after survey has shown three to one majorities in favor of labeling. Of course, 80 percent of American consumers are also in favor of labeling foods that contain DNA, which is odd, since all foods contain DNA. That might lead one to believe that consumers have not given the subject a great deal of thought. Further evidence for that conclusion is the fact that nearly one half of consumers profess to be disgusted by genetic engineering, believing that the process should be outlawed, no matter how large the benefits and how small the risks. So, if somebody in the future develops a genetically engineered process that cures cancer and bans the designated hitter, somewhere around half of all American consumers will be “disgusted” at the result. Or maybe, just maybe, with the advent of labels, they’ll realize we’ve all been munching our way through millions of acres of GM crops every year for over two decades, without any sign of harm.
The new law will provide telephone numbers and computer codes that will allow consumers to research the presence of GMO ingredients if they so desire. It was made necessary by a law passed in Vermont, which mandates labels for all GMO products sold in the state. Since food is a national market and processors have little control over where distributors market their products, the 300,000 or so voters in Vermont set a de facto national standard. Not a very good one, since the Vermont law conveniently exempted dairy products and other food items produced in Vermont. One could easily foresee 50 labeling laws, each exempting products important to that state. That’s a nightmare for a national market, and for those few remaining people who worry about the constitution, would raise serious questions about the dormant commerce clause.
In surveys that don’t mention genetic engineering, but just ask consumers to rank their concerns about food, genetic engineering barely registers. That may be a better indication of the market as it exists. Most consumers, when not pushed by a pollster to express an opinion, have accepted the technology and will continue to purchase the foods they like, with or without a label.