By Mark Lynas
Yesterday, in a hugely significant move, the food manufacturer Campbell Soup Company announced that it was supporting labeling of GMOs. Why is this hugely significant? Because Campbell is not just pledging to support the labeling of its own products, it is asking for the introduction of a mandatory federal labeling scheme. Thus the company has broken spectacularly with the long-standing Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) coalition opposing mandatory labeling across the United States.
In my view this is a smart and very timely move by Campbell. It establishes the company as a leader and gets out in front of the endlessly polarized GMO debate with a stance that clearly supports the principle of consumer choice. Don’t forget, Campbell has already trialled a new website detailing GMO ingredients (and other relevant info) in its products and found that the sky did not fall in.
I have long been of the opinion that GMO labeling is an issue that needs to be addressed with some kind of sensible compromise. (I made a speech supporting mandatory labeling back in 2013 in Chicago.) By taking a stance that appears to be opposing the consumer ‘right to know’, industry has not won itself any friends, and has cemented perceptions – eagerly built on by the anti-GMO lobby – that big corporations are trying to smuggle GMO products into the national food system.
The GMA’s efforts in Congress have also fallen flat. While the Republican-dominated House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo by a wide margin, equivalent legislation has not been forthcoming from the Senate – and an industry-sponsored attempt to attach a rider to the recent spending bill at the end of 2015 also failed. The Senate has failed to act because no Democrat is prepared to take industry’s side on this issue – to be seen to be siding with the hated Monsanto on the GMO issue would be suicide for any lawmaker with an urban Democrat voter base.
Latterly the GMA has tried to float a compromise, promising a ‘smart label’ approach (probably with a QR code) that would detail the presence of GMOs (and other food chain issues) for tens of thousands of products made by its members. The reason the GMA is panicking is because Vermont has a GMO labeling law that is due to come into force in July this year. Unless Congress pre-empts states’ rights on the issue soon, Vermont’s mandatory labeling law will not only play havoc with the food sector in the state, but may open the floodgates to a patchwork of other GMO labeling laws in other states.
But it’s too late for a voluntary approach. With Campbells’ move, the writing is on the wall for the entire food sector. No company that cares about the perception of its brand can afford to take a stance that appears to oppose any consumer interest. Note that Campbell’s has made its break with the GMA very explicit:
As a result of its decision to support mandatory national GMO labeling, Campbell will withdraw from all efforts led by coalitions and groups opposing such measures.
That means you GMA. The game is up. Thankfully labeling is a good deal better than the total removal of GMO ingredients, a much more threatening move to the food chain that ironically has not panned out too well for those urban hipster capitalists over at Chipotle.
Why must labeling be mandatory? Because otherwise many companies will not label, and those that do may be singled out by anti-GMO lobbyists for consumer boycotts and brand damage. I fully accept that there is no scientific case for labeling, and that for the most part there is no nutritional or compositional difference between foods with GMO ingredients and those without. But that is no longer the point.
Let’s look on the bright side of labeling too. Once GMO-derived products are labeled, there is no logical impediment to having more of them. Celiac-friendly baking products derived from GMO wheat? It’s your choice. AquaBounty salmon? It’s your choice. Labeling does not lead to a ban – quite the reverse. Labeling could lead to many more GMO products on our shelves, if consumers choose to buy them. Once products are labeled, asking then for a ban is illogical.
I want to make this point very clear. Once GMO products are labeled, anti-GMO lobby groups will have sacrificed their best argument. No-one is being denied the ‘right to know’. Moreover, the antis will have no defensible reason to call for GMO bans – because then they would be the ones denying consumer choice. If they lobby retailers not to stock GMO AquaBounty salmon, or White Russet potatoes or Arctic Apples, the antis will be unambiguously reducing choice. Growers should then have a clearer route to market with new GMO products because it will not be an all-or-nothing situation in each case.
The issue here is choice, and more particularly informed choice. Farmers have the right to choose whether to grow GMO crops. Consumers have the right to choose whether to eat them. This is a much better situation to have than either prohibitions – such as the awful GMO farming ban in Jackson County, Oregon, or similar initiatives in Hawaiian islands – or the current lack of transparency in the food chain in general, the basic fuel which feeds the anti-GMO fire.
I’m also very impressed that Campbells has accompanied its labeling announcement with a stout defence of GMO technology.
“Campbell continues to recognize that GMOs are safe, as the science indicates that foods derived from crops grown using genetically modified seeds are not nutritionally different from other foods. The company also believes technology will play a crucial role in feeding the world.”
Amen to that. This once again reinforces the psychology point I have made repeatedly about labeling: identifying the presence of GMOs in food products does not make people feel they are more risky, it makes people feel they are safer. Freedom of choice dissipates fear and exposes the anti-GMO conspiracy theorists for the deluded fools they are. GMOs should be ‘out and proud’, shouting about how they are reducing pesticides, making farming more sustainable and improving food security in developing countries.
On the other hand, simply lecturing people about the science doesn’t work – you have to accompany this with giving them the ability to make informed choices about what they eat. You have to trust the consumer, not tell them that they don’t need to know about something because the experts all agree it is safe. (In these cynical times that hierarchical approach definitely not going to work.)
In my view this looks good for Campbell and will help build the company’s ethical brand. This is not a company that is being dragged kicking and screaming into revealing a dark secret about its products. This is a company that is getting out in front of a difficult issue and forcing change on an entire sector. Let’s hope other key players ‘get it’ sooner rather than later. This is not an issue where any company in the sector can afford to be left behind defending the indefensible for very much longer.