“This is a huge deal,” said First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House last week. “You as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf, and tell whether it’s good for your family.”
Mrs. Obama is absolutely correct, and her remarks came at an event calling for revised nutrition labels on food packages. The Food and Drug Administration now will seek comments from the public. Any changes are probably at least two years away.
In the meantime, however, Congress may want to take an extra step and stop states from creating a crazy-patch collection of rules for the labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients. The first lady didn’t mention GMOs in her talk, but applying her principles to a rising controversy would solve a problem before it hurts farmers, families, and consumers.
Biotechnology has revolutionized agriculture, allowing farmers to grow more nutritious food on less land than ever before—a trend that’s good for families worried about their checkbooks and good for everyone who’s concerned about the environment. We eat food derived from genetically modified crops everyday. Groups from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have endorsed their use.
As with so many technologies, however, this one has attracted passionate opposition from a small number of professional protestors. They’re determined to wage a campaign of misinformation against GMOs, and their latest scheme is to persuade individual states to require warning labels on products that include genetically modified ingredients. One of these activists told Politico last month that he expects 30 state legislatures to weigh labeling proposals this year.
Their plan is to confuse consumers, frightening them away from safe and healthy choices.
They’ve adopted this ploy because they know they can’t win through the legislative process on the federal level. Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed a law to let states require labels on food with GMO ingredients. Majorities of both Democrats and Republican opposed the measure. It went down to defeat by a vote of 71 to 27.
In December, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California—one of the senators who favored Sanders’ bad idea—became so frustrated by the failure that she called on President Obama just to ignore the will of Congress. “Use your authority to require labeling” of GMOs, she demanded in a letter to the president.
That’s unlikely to happen—not after so many of the president’s fellow Democrats came down on the side of common sense.
Voters have done the same. Last year in Washington State, they rejected a ballot initiative to require labels of food with GMOs. A year before in California, they voted down another pointless labeling law. In both referenda, voters came to understand that labels simply would boost food bills without delivering any benefits. They also recognized a simple fact: Anyone who wants to avoid GMOs, for whatever reason, simply can shop for organic foods, which don’t rely on genetic modification.
Yet the enemies of biotechnology won’t give up—and they’ve already experienced a bit of success. In Connecticut and Maine, lawmakers have approved labels for GM foods, though these rules won’t take effect until other states in New England join them (and so far none have). Activists are also talking about pushing an initiative in Oregon, or perhaps Colorado.
So we may be at a tipping-point moment. It seems increasingly likely that although voters and lawmakers will continue to support biotechnology, the anti-GMO activists will continue to attempt to break through in a handful of states.
This is silly. We shouldn’t have 50 sets of complicated food regulations, subject to the whims of sparring special-interest groups.
Last week, Mrs. Obama described a common conundrum: Many people, she said, had “marched into the supermarket, you picked up a can or a box of something, you squinted at that little tiny label, and you were totally and utterly lost.”
Congress should put an end to this problem before it starts, for the sake of farmers who need modern agricultural tools and consumers who seek reasonable assurances that they’re buying safe and healthy food.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).