There were no doubt celebrations last week in the boardrooms of corporations that own patents to the world's genetically engineered crops. Proposals to label foods containing these crops--commonly called GMOs for genetically modified organisms--were defeated soundly in Colorado and barely in Oregon.
That makes for a perfect record in the United States for the GMO purveyors who have beaten back every attempt to mandate labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients. But, I think the celebrations may be premature. For the advocates of labeling have vowed to fight on. They came within a hair's breadth of reaching their goal in Oregon. Who is to say that another round of voter education might not put them over the top?
And, that is the danger for the GMO patent holders. If just one state requires labeling, the food companies will have to make a choice: Special handling and labels for one state or one label for the entire country that also meets that state's standards.* If the first state to implement a GMO labeling requirement is populous, say, California or New York, the decision will be made for the food companies. It won't be sensible to segregate supplies for that state. And, even a less populous state might tip the balance. Some states have passed GMO labeling laws that require enough other states to pass such laws to reach a minimum population threshold of in one case 20 million before the law goes into effect.
Vermont has passed a labeling law that would not require other states to act. But the law is being challenged by the GMO industry in court. If it survives that challenge--which is not at all certain--then its implementation could end up being the one win which the labeling advocates need to create a cascade of labeling requirements elsewhere and the acquiescence of much of the food industry. On the other hand, even if Vermont ultimately prevails in court, the suit could result in lengthy delays in the implementation of the law and mean that the first genuine implementation of GMO food labeling takes place elsewhere.
What complicates matters further for the GMO seed companies is that an increasing number of food processors are opting to exclude GMO ingredients from their products. Many processors proudly display this choice by using the emblem of the Non-GMO Project on their foods (meaning that their GMO-free formulation has actually been verified).
Many others will find ways to eliminate GMO ingredients, especially if they represent a small proportion of the total for any product, just to avoid mandatory labeling.
All this means that as the momentum for labeling continues to build, the opponents of labeling will have fewer and fewer allies. And, if just one state adopts labeling, those allies will shrink appreciably as more and more food processors abandon the GMO bandwagon just to avoid the labeling requirement.
The other problem for the GMO purveyors is that the anti-GMO forces win even when they lose. With each ballot initiative the public gets a months-long education in the debate over the safety, utility and environmental consequences of GMO crops. The public is given broad information about what crops are genetically modified and which foods contain them. In the process, the GMO seed producers must take the position that they don't want the public to know which foods contain GMO ingredients. It's ultimately a losing position. An alert consumer will simply ask, "Why don't they want me to know?" And, that leads to all sorts of suspicions, both justified and unjustified.
Now, when Intel sells its chipsets to computer manufacturers, it wants the consumer to know that there's "Intel Inside." It's a big selling point! Godiva wants you to know all about how it makes its chocolate and where it comes from. But GMO seed companies--so proud of their technology on their websites--don't want you to know a thing about that technology when it makes its way onto your grocery store shelves.
One seed company executive summarized the reason perfectly all the way back in 1994: "If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it." The obvious question is: "What does he know that we don't?"
Here is the bind that the GMO seed companies are in. They went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and filed patents that said each of their seeds is unique and therefore deserving of patent protection. The patent office agreed. Then, the companies marched over to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and said that their seeds don't need any special approval because the seeds are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GMO counterparts.
So, if these seeds are "substantially equivalent," then how can they be patented? The answer has to be that they are not equivalent, but unique. FDA scientists balked at the equivalence idea when they first reviewed requests from the companies for a waiver on testing. The scientists recommended that GMO foods be tested for safety just as new drugs are. After all, how can you actually know if something is substantially equivalent until you actually test it? In the end, however, politics overrode science.
Well-meaning biologists tell us not to worry about GMO crops. We've been altering the genes of plants for millennia. That's true, but never in this way and never at this scale. And, that's where the true risk lies. As I've explained before, the hidden risk in GMO crops is not one individual version. It is the repeated and continuing attempts to alter the genes of crops using genes from alien species without knowing the full risks. (You can't discover all of those risks even if you test because of complex interactions with the environment and human physiology that cannot be fully identified or, even if they could be, cannot be reproduced in the laboratory.)
And, we are not moving slowly with GMO crops as a way of testing whether there might be problems. Instead, we are introducing these new seeds at breakneck speeds over vast portions of the Earth. There is the risk, however small, that some seeds will wreck havoc on the Earth's biosphere and/or produce a massive worldwide crop failure and/or damage human health among a broad population. And, the risk of crop failures is multiplied further because most modern agriculture is based on risky monoculture farming.
The apologist might say that such GMO-related risks are very small. But, that apologist cannot say that they are zero. That means we face systemic ruin if something goes wrong. And because GMO crops have the ability to create systemic ruin, the probability that that ruin will occur approaches 100 percent as more and more GMO seed varieties are introduced into the environment and the resulting foodstuffs become part of the human diet.
The argument that we have no evidence that this could happen is, first of all, false: We already have superweeds as a result of excessive use of glyphosate, the herbicide used in conjunction with soybean crops genetically engineered to resist the herbicide. Research has shown that people with Brazil nut allergies can have allergic reactions to products into which Brazil nut genes have been introduced. (The offending GMO version of soy was never marketed.) But even if there were no direct evidence, the above argument is beside the point. That's because hidden systemic risks** don't show up until you are already ruined! They can only be prevented by refraining from doing those things which pose systemic risk, a type of risk we can recognize ahead of time if we ask the right questions.
The only question now is WHEN systemic ruin caused by GMO crops will occur. Next month, next year, 100 years from now? We cannot know. But, the benefits of GMO crops cannot be weighed against their costs, if one of the costs is complete ruin. There are no benefits which justify continually risking complete catastrophe. None.
We may do something systemically risky once and get away with it. But, we cannot get away with it forever. While labeling GMO foods won't solve that problem, it will be one more step in the march toward awareness of the potentially catastrophic risks we are taking with GMO crops.
UPDATED: November 10, 2014
*Incidentally, that should be the response to the industry's claim that labeling will send prices higher in the state with the labeling requirement. Simple fix: Just use the same label for the entire United States!
**Purely local risks can often be evaluated and are susceptible to risk management approaches. But there is no risk management solution possible for hidden systemic risks for the very reason that they are hidden. Even where local risks are hidden, we can decide to tolerate them precisely because they are local and will not bring down worldwide systems, either natural or man-made.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.