GMO Labels and Ignorance

Note: This post is part of a short series on issues around GMO labeling. See the intro post for more information.

The current proposals to label genetically engineered foods1 don’t actually give the consumer more information than they could have now with only a small amount of thought. Moreover, I think widespread ignorance and general fear of technology means that few consumers will actually become more informed as a result of labeling. The result might be a reduction of genetically engineered foods in the market for human consumption, leaving the even cheaper animal feed market to be fought over by large agribusiness. This could be bad for civilization as it makes it harder to use a particular tool to solve problems.

Update on 2012/08/08 07:45: I mistakenly thought that the California initiative requires labels of GMO ingredients on the front of packaging. This is only true for whole foods (e.g. produce). For processed foods it is required to be conspicuously labeled on either the front or back. I’ve made notes in the text to clarify this.

No More Information With Labels

While may of the proponents of the California genetic engineering labeling initiative are obviously using fear tactics and exagerated (or outright false) claims of dangers to human health (see below), the argument I actually find appealing is a general “right to know”. People should be able to know how their food was grown and processed. People will be more informed about how their food! How can anyone disagree?

But I think there is a combination of disingenuity and willfull blindness that leads people to believe a simple “contains genetically engineered ingredients” label will actually give consumers more information or it will lead to people being better informed. For the informed consumer, such a simple label gives no more information than currently available. You can easily determine using the organic standard labels and ingredients lists to figure out if a product might contain material derived from a GE organism. It’s a simple process:

Does this product contain ingredients from this list: corn or corn sugars, soy, canola, cottonseed oil, papaya, beet sugar (or unspecified “sugar”) or zucchini? If yes and there isn’t a “contains no GMO” label or the items aren’t labeled organic, then the product probably has at least some quantity sourced from a grower who uses a GE variety. Otherwise, no GE ingredients.

No, really, that’s it. The proportion of genetically engineered varieties used in the corn, soy and canola markets is so large that it’s essentially a given that anything that doesn’t explicitly label itself otherwise contains a GE ingredient. Zucchini is a marginal case as it only controls less than 20% of the market, but that’s still pretty high. It really doesn’t seem like it takes much effort to know. In any case, one can always ask and there is already a very robust “contains no GMOs” labeling system taking hold.

Other Labels

If the proposed label isn’t going to add information, what will it do? I think the most common effect will actually be to make more people afraid of genetically engineered food. Why do I think this? First, let me give two examples where labeling is used or required and why.

  • Dairy from cows that have not been treated with bovine growth hormone (rBST) may label said fact, but most also voluntarily (on FDA recommendation) include the label “FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.” The reason is that the FDA has the position that dairy from cows given rBST is not dangerous to human health. Without the clarification, a uninformed consumer might think that a dairy product without such labels is unsafe. In general, the FDA tries to restrict package labels that would encourage consumers to be driven by bad information.
  • Food irradiation is legal and safe and approved for a wide variety of foods. However, it requires labeling. Very little food on the market is irradiated, despite there being significant safety benefits. In general, retailers think there is a stigma attached to it and irradiation is largely limited to dry spices and imported tropical fruit, which have few alternatives (and in the case of spices used in mixtures, don’t require labels at all). Labeling combined with ignorance may be a big part of it2: many Americans believe food irradiation makes the food radioactive so why would they buy a product that says it was?

The point here is not actually to promote either of these food production or handling methods. Rather, I’m noting that labels and consumer ignorance do interact. Tellingly, in the EU, mandatory labeling has nearly driven genetically engineered foods off the market even though the regulators admitted they were perfectly safe. Could that happen here?

Becoming Informed

Americans are profoundly ignorant about genetics and agriculture. In 2003, 43% of Americans in a poll believed ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes. In 2010, 47% believed the same thing. A third in 2003 even believed that eating genetically modified fruits would modify their own genes! How is a label saying “contains genetically engineered ingredients” going to inform those Americans?

Let’s assume the best: someone not very knowledgeable on the subject might go search the internet to try to inform themselves. What will they find? Here are the first 5 results in Google for “genetically engineered food”3:

  1. Global Issues page on genetically engineered foods contains at first glance several outright falsehoods, a lot of misleading text and general anti-corporate sentiment being used to bolster an anti-GE argument. I would not recommend this link to someone I wanted to genuinely inform.
  2. Wikipedia is thankfully fairly balanced though it sadly includes information from several studies claiming dire ill-effects whose results are oversold and are commonly used by anti-GM activists to argue against the much larger body of research suggesting genetically engineered foods are largely safe to eat.
  3. CSA seems to be competing with wikipedia to some degree and is fairly balanced.
  4. Food and Water Watch seems to be seemingly responsible language but is clearly biased. The page contains this whopper: “Organic farming, which does not allow the use of GE, has been shown to be safer and more effective than using modified seed.” Few studies have been done comparing the safety of organic farming versus equivalent genetically engineered (or just straight conventional hybrids) and if effectiveness is measured on yield, then regular hybrid fields that use modern pesticides and fertilizers continue to outpace organic farming methods for production of commodity crops like corn and soy.
  5. Center for Food Safety is frankly completely against GE in general. The text on this page is fraught with falsehood, exaggeration and misleading statements including a litany of scary-sounding GE organisms (“super” pigs!) that are not actively being pursued instead of listing the actual current uses of GE technology such as pesticide resistance and so forth.

So our hypothetical uninformed consumer may become more informed if he were to google this search term. But this is his food, I think it far more likely he would google “is genetically engineered food safe”. The results:

  1. WebMD actually claims the EU’s position is that they are unsafe, but in fact the EU-wide regulatory bodies consider current genetically engineered foods safe to eat! WebMD is relatively balanced, but stretches to include information on allergen risks when so far none have cropped up (that weren’t found before marketing for public consumption).
  2. PBS has a back and forth between various experts and I’m not sure that a poorly informed reader would get much out of it, especially with claims of hamster genes in food mentioned.
  3. NewsMax Health is full of scary “facts” and cites several debunked studies and generally recommends not eating genetically engineered foods.
  4. The World Health Organization is quite fact-based, but given some Americans distrust of international organizations, it might not be a very convincing source. It is however pretty good and balanced.
  5. The Global Issues page is essentially propaganda: claims of no adequate testing (false), cites extremely biased sources, claims genetically modified crops have lowered yields and so forth. It also strangely doesn’t really say much about safety despite the title.

Also, I note that none of these are for governmental regulatory bodies that are actually charged with food safety which might be critical to some readers. Obviously if a labeling scheme went into effect, there would probably be a regulatory body charged with providing information (maybe even included as a link with the label). Hopefully that information would be fair and not confusing.

But this is the best case. Considering how ignorant many consumers are, I think it likely a large segment of the market will just avoid foods labeled as containing genetically engineereed ingredients out of fear (they might modify your genes after all). When you add in that the government doesn’t demand front-of-package labels (as with the California initiative [correction: front is only required for whole food items]) except for very important information (such as allergens), a consumer could be forgiven for assuming the label means the food might be dangerous.

Using Ignorance to Drive Fear

One big reason I think that a labeling scheme as simple as the California initiative4 is going to lead to more consumer fear is that the very campaign to get it passed is using fear tactics that require consumer ignorance to be effective. LabelGMOs.org uses this image in their campaign and it appears on their homepage:

labelgmos_corn_girl_pesticide
Little girl eating corn, text saying ‘Corn engineered to grow its own pesticide’

The pesticide they are referring to are the Bt toxins and they are considered very safe. They are heavily used in organic agriculture as a spray (made of the soil bacteria the Bt genes were found in). But this image is clearly trying to make you think your children are eating harmful pesticides, when in fact the pesticide in question is considered basically safe. That’s a fear-tactic that depends on your ignorance.

Another organization supporting the California initiative is Just Label It. Consider this infographic. Half the infographic is about labeling in other countries but the rest is devoted to basically three things: GE salmon, the Aris & Leblanc study showing Bt toxin in the blood, and the GE potential to introduce allergens or toxins. GE salmon is not on the market and may get a label on its own (in any case, avoid farmed salmon5). Bt toxin in the blood is not an issue of public safety if it is not demonstrated to cause harm (which it hasn’t been). The infographic does not include the fact that the toxin in question is used heavily in organic agriculture as well. Genetic engineering can of course introduce allergens or toxins to the food supply, but then so can conventional agriculture.

Curiously, the Just Label It campaign admits that you can easily avoid genetically engineered foods now, even providing a guide to do so. They even suggest calling the manufacturer if unsure.

California Law Not About Right to Know

Current GE foods on the market are safe to eat (or as safe as anything is). But there are other reasons I might want to avoid genetically engineered foods. The market is admittedly dominated by players like Monsanto which I might object to. I might find the entire idea of modern genetic engineering to be morally repugnant and would avoid any GE products. And so on. But tellingly, the California initiative exempts the following from labeling:

  • Meat or animal products from animals fed or treated with genetically engineered ingredients do not have to be labeled. A majority of corn grown in the United States feeds animals and most of that is currently a genetically engineered variety.
  • Enzymes and similar used in processing food that may be created from genetically engineered organisms but are not themselves present in the final result or are chemically similar to non-GE origin substances. This and the above saves many California cheeses from having to be labeled.
  • Raw foods that are “contaminated” with GE unintentionally. That is, if it’s discovered after the fact (perhaps via testing) it doesn’t have to be labeled.
  • Alcoholic beverages are basically exempt, even though yeasts are sometimes genetically engineered.
  • Food products with very small amounts of GE ingredients (less than 0.5% by weight and no more than ten such ingredients) until 2019 anyway.
  • A weird exemption exists for food that an independent organization has determined hasn’t been “knowingly and intentionally produced from … genetically enginereed seed” and goes on at some length. I’m not sure which industry this is trying to protect.
  • USDA organic food does not need a label even though the USDA allows significant non-organic ingredients (more than 0.5%). It’s unlikely a producer would make something with 98% organic ingredients and 1% GE ingredients, but this exemption says they wouldn’t need the GE label.
  • Restaurants do not have to provide labels or indicate whether they use GE ingredients. Neither does food packaged for immediate consumption (e.g. the grocery deli section).

This law has so many exemptions that a moral objector to genetically modified organisms is still stuck with buying only organic (and probably being a teetotaling vegan who never eats out). I’m not sure what this law is really about, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be about truly informing consumers. Exempting restaurants and food packaged for immediate consumption allows large amounts of food to go unlabeled (half the market in terms of money spent is spent out of the home). The requirement to build alliances in politics probably explains this exemption (and the organic exemption), but it means the result is not a law that creates a consumer right to know, it creates a consumer right to know sometimes.

Why Do I Care?

In short, I care because the GE market is already dominated by large players like Monsanto. In Europe, general opposition to GE has driven smaller companies to do their research elsewhere (or pull out entirely). If the California label scheme takes hold (and the California market can drive the national market) and GE foods mostly disappear off the market, that means the only market in the US for GE crops will be for animal feed. The animal feed market is a cheap market, driven by lowering costs. Low costs means less money to spend on doing research, which means large companies with a good market position can easily continue to dominate. That’s not really good for society or humanity.


  1. I will use “genetically engineered”, “GE”, “GM” or “GMO” fairly interchangeably. In general, it means things like Bt corn, herbicide-tolerant varieties made with transgenic methods, Golden Rice and more. It also technically includes things like microbially-produced rennet, many yeasts, and even medical treatments, though often those aren’t included when worrying about genetically engineered things.
  2. The other is likely the expense of the equipment. That said, if large producers aren’t willing to use irradiation due to consumer fear, then there’s less ability to drive down the cost.
  3. These results may of course change order or may not exactly match what you would get today.
  4. The initiative requires “genetic engineering” to appear in large text on the front (correction: or back for processed food) of the packaging of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, with some exceptions.
  5. Actually, just avoid fish unless you absolutely know where it comes from. The accuracy of fish labels is incredibly poor and unlike GM corn, you can’t easily figure out origins or even species, despite a label.

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