California, the birthplace of so many trends, is at it again with a proposal on this fall’s ballot for mandatory labels on genetically modified food.
The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act will appear on voter ballots as Proposition 37 in the Nov. 6 U.S. elections, which among other things will also choose a president.
If passed, Proposition 37 would make California the first state to require labels on GM food. And because of its huge population — it has more people than Canada — what happens in California has a big impact on what happens in the rest of the United States.
Recent ballot initiatives regarding animal welfare in California and other states have shifted the norm in how livestock are raised, forcing the North American livestock industry, including Canada, to adopt new practices on things such as sow crates.
If Proposition 37 were to pass, it would also provide momentum to private member’s bill C-257, introduced in Canada’s Parliament by New Democrat Alex Atamanenko last year. With the Conservatives enjoying a majority in Parliament, the bill is unlikely to progress, but it does have the support of a number of opposition members.
The proponents of GMO labelling initiatives make an argument that on the face of it is hard to dismiss: that people have a right to know what they’re eating and feeding their families.
But when it comes to laws and mandatory rules, we must consider the costs and usefulness of such labels.
Mandatory labels that provide calorie and nutrition provide valuable information to people planning their daily diet. Mandatory allergen warnings are clearly important to people with allergies.
But there are no peer reviewed scientific studies that indicate food from GM sources is more dangerous or substantially different than food from non-GM sources.
So, on the basis of current science, there is no safety or nutritional reason to single out GM food with a special label.
And make no mistake: GM food labelling won’t just enhance transparency, providing consumers basic information.
It would stigmatize modern farming and food production, put it at a disadvantage, open it up to nuisance lawsuits and add unnecessary costs to the food system.
Some people don’t trust this science, but should mandatory labelling laws be designed to placate the fears of skeptics?
There is also a sizeable group of labelling supporters who oppose genetic modification for social, economic and environmental reasons.
But where do we draw the line in providing label information?
Some people might want to know how much greenhouse gas was created in the production of food.
Others might be concerned about the labour conditions of people involved in planting and harvesting crops.
Should there be mandatory labels providing such information?
No. The government should protect the public from danger and support their ability to make healthful choices, but as for providing information to help consumers make social and economic decisions, that should be up to the marketplace.
Companies are always looking for ways to differentiate their products and appeal to customers. That is why there is a vast range of products that voluntarily identify themselves variously as union made, fair trade, organic and natural.
The organic sector is already well developed, providing consumers who want it a non-GM alternative.
Governments should continue to diligently assess the safety of new GM food, but once the safety is determined, there is no need to require mandatory, special labels.