The Campbell Soup Company announced plans last week to label its products that rely on biotechnology—a development that Agri-Pulse calls “a landmark break from the rest of the conventional food industry.”
For years, farmers and food makers have fought against the ideological campaigns of political activists to require labels for genetically modified ingredients. We’ve won almost everywhere, from ballot-initiative battles in California, Oregon, and Washington to bills in state capitols. In Congress, the House has passed and the Senate has mulled legislation that would prevent states from establishing a costly regime of contradictory labeling rules.
We’ve made the same compelling points, over and over: These labels have no scientific justification and they threaten to boost food prices by hundreds of dollars per year for ordinary families.
Yet we live in a climate of uncertainty, as we read headlines about food poisonings at Chipotle—forgetting, perhaps, that the restaurant chain has crusaded against GMOs, which never have made anyone sick.
I enjoy a warm cup of Campbell’s soup on a cold winter’s day—and food companies have every right to label their products as they see fit, as long as the labels are accurate. If they want to call attention to GMO ingredients, for the purpose of transparency or any other reason, then that’s what they should do.
Yet the Campbell’s decision made me think back to a week earlier, when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times: “We Need a New Green Revolution,” by Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner, a pair of distinguished scientists.
The title says it all. My reaction was immediate and simple: We’re already living through a Green Revolution. Some people call it the “Gene Revolution.” Whatever name we give it, the reality of our era is that farmers are growing more food than ever before, and we owe much of our current success to biotechnology.
At the same time, I agree that we can do better.
Way back in the 1970s, when I was a young farmer, Americans exported about one third of all the grain we grew. Today, even though the U.S. population has expanded by 100 million people and we’re required by law to divert a portion of our grain to ethanol production, we’re still exporting about one third of all our grain.
That’s quite an achievement. The difference is that we’re growing a lot more food. Call it what you want: Green Revolution, Gene Revolution, or a New Green Revolution. The bottom line is that we’re witnessing a period of remarkable progress in agriculture. We’re living through it right now.
Sharp and Leshner, however, make a larger point: “Now more than ever, we need to embrace 21st-century science, fund it and turn it loose so we can develop better methods of putting food on the table.” They point out that in the 1940s, about 40 percent of federal scientific research focused on food. Today, it’s less than 2 percent.
I certainly wouldn’t oppose new investments in agricultural research, though it’s worth noting that our federal debt approaches $19 trillion—and so new investments may be hard to come by. Even so, we must keep surging ahead with our farming revolution.
I can think of two ways to unleash progress that also have the advantage of costing taxpayers nothing.
First, we can improve the regulatory climate. It takes too much time and money for American innovations to move from idea to commercialization. This is the result of bureaucratic inaction. If we can cut through red tape in the agencies that oversee new technologies, we’ll see quick and lasting gains. Research and development will follow.
Second, we can fix popular attitudes—and this brings us back to Campbell’s. The GMO labels on the iconic red and white cans will appear only because of unjustified suspicions about modern agriculture. If our efforts at public education improve what consumers know about their food, it will lead to more support for science-based investments.
Best of all, both of these approaches are free. They’re cheaper than a can of tomato soup.