A startling exchange on Capitol Hill last week ought to end the debate over whether genetically modified foods should carry special warning labels.
It came near the conclusion of a three-hour hearing on December 10. The members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health heard a range of views on a hotly contested political question—the subject of ballot initiatives in two states last month as well as proposed legislation in Congress.
The hearing room was so packed with guests that the chairman, Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, began the session by saying he wished that all of the subcommittee’s meetings would generate so much interest from the public.
Three hours later, with time running out, Rep. Mike Pompeo asked a direct question of a five-witness panel.
“I’m going to try to get some yes-or-no answers,” said the Kansas Republican. He quoted an official from the Food and Drug Administration who had stated earlier in the day that GM foods “are as safe as their conventional counterparts.”
Then he looked up at the panelists. “We’ll start on my left,” he said. “Tell me if you agree—yes or no—with that statement.”
One by one, each of the five panelists replied: “Yes.”
“We have total unanimity,” said Pompeo. “That’s fantastic.”
Indeed it was, because those unanimous responses have the potential to halt an unhelpful controversy.
Three of the “yes” responses to Pompeo’s question were foreseeable, as they came from a scientist, a farmer, and a food-industry spokesman. Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Stacey Forshee of the Kansas Farm Bureau, and Tom Dempsey of the Snack Food Association know the truth about GM food, from their own research and experience: They’re safe and healthy.
The other two panelists, however, are both strong advocates of labeling GM foods. They had every motive to respond in the negative.
Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group is a professional activist whose organization claims—with wild implausibility—that organic food “can feed the world” (according to a recent headline on its website).
Kate Webb is assistant majority leader of Vermont’s House of Representatives. Last year, her state passed a GM-labeling law whose implementation threatens to begin the process of creating a confusing patchwork of state-by-state regulations.
Confronted by Pompeo’s question, both Faber and Webb nevertheless replied in the affirmative. They agreed that GM foods “are as safe as their conventional counterparts.”
Their responses beg an obvious question: If GM foods are no different from non-GM foods, then why should foods that contain GM ingredients carry special labels?
They have no answer for this, or at least no good ones—and their lack of answers exposes the fundamental weakness of the political case for labels. Once we scratch beneath the slogans, we discover no substantive reason to slap warning stickers on GM food.
As Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat of California, commented during the hearing: GM food labels could be “inherently misleading” to consumers.
Consumers would suffer in other ways, too: Studies show that GM food labels would push up food prices by hundreds of dollars per year.
“If the labeling could result in higher food prices, then maybe that’s not a risk we want to take,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat of New Jersey.
This is why voters in Colorado and Oregon rejected ballot proposals on Election Day to mandate labels for GM food. They examined the issue and decided that the enormous costs of labeling far outweighed the nonexistent benefits.
Faber and Webb deserve credit for answering Pompeo’s question with honesty and accuracy. Now they should follow their words with action and work with others across the food supply spectrum to support federal legislation that affirms food companies have the right to label their products voluntarily and prevent states from imposing complicated rules about GM food labeling.
The intellectual and scientific debate over GM food is over. The new Congress now should end the political debate.
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).