Could consumer choice spell the end for GMOs?


Ever since last year’s decision by Boulder County Commissioners to allow genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be grown on county open space lands, opponents of that ruling have looked to this November’s election as the next best way to reverse the county’s position. With two county commissioner seats up for grabs and with most candidates running on a popular anti-GMO platform, voters should finally get their way on the issue. But regardless of how the politics in Boulder County turn out, this November’s election cycle could spell the end of GMOs on our open space land and quite likely on most other lands across the country as well, and it has nothing to do with voters in Boulder County.

That’s because the very future of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. is on the ballot in California in the form of a GMO labeling initiative that has huge implications for all of us. And, at least for now, it appears as though voters in the Golden state are overwhelmingly in support of the measure that, if passed, could deal a deathblow to the genetically engineered seed industry as we know it.

To understand the potential power of the California vote, a brief examination of the origins of the European Union’s (EU) GMO labeling requirements is helpful.

The EU’s regulatory policies on the environment, food and genetic engineering in general are currently based on what is known as the “precautionary principle.” This has been the case since the 1990s. Wikipedia offers this definition of the principle:

“The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking.”

The precautionary principle was the guiding philosophy of many U.S. regulations between the late 1960s and mid 1980s. It was even written into the founding directives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and gave birth to such programs as Superfund, which was initially created in response to growing public fears over toxic waste, not scientific research.

Why the U.S. abandoned the precautionary principle is a complicated tale, which for the sake of space will be simplified to two words: Ronald Reagan.

But more important to the GMO issue is why did the EU change course and adopt the precautionary principle as its regulatory philosophy in the 1990s? The answer is Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

While not the first or last regulatory failure of the EU, it was the most significant. It was the incredibly poor handling of the mad cow outbreak in Britain that turned the tide and ushered in the age of the precautionary principle in Europe. As the former French environment minister, Corrine Lapage, said in her book on the subject, “The precautionary principle precisely responds to the need for prudence when faced with the consequences of technological progress, whose repercussions are exponential and unknown.”

For years after the first cases of mad cow disease had been discovered in British cattle, that country’s government, along with EU authorities, assured the public that humans were safe because they could not contract the disease that was decimating European herds. The EU continued to allow infected British cattle to be exported. But then the unimaginable happened. Ten confirmed cases of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, a terrible brain ailment similar to Alzheimer’s, were linked to eating BSE-tainted beef. The EU regulatory agencies charged with protecting the public’s health and food supply had been dead wrong or covering up the truth for years. Either way, they, along with the scientists who had assured all was well, lost all credibility in the public’s sight.

At the same time mad cow disease and the government’s incompetence in handling the crisis were beginning to dominate the European psyche, the U.S. was making its first shipments of GMO crops and seed into EU countries. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Monsanto and the other GMO-producing corporations.

Europeans tend to view food production as a natural, rather than an industrial process, a reality that was already making them skeptical of genetically engineered foods. But their food-safety awareness reached near hysteria thanks to the mad cow debacle. As a result, they quickly became terrified and outraged, believing that GMOs could well be the next source of food-derived illness that regulators would be too incompetent to prevent.

So despite assurances from the U.S. government that GMO corn, wheat and soy were safe, citizens all across the EU demanded that GMOs be either outlawed altogether, or at least labeled properly in all food products containing them so that consumers could retain their right to choose whether or not to eat them. EU politicians, fearing a voter backlash that had been building from the mad-cow issue, listened.

Europeans got their GMO labels. Europeans got their right to choose the type of food they eat. European consumers rejected products containing GMOs hands-down, choosing instead to purchase products containing ingredients grown from natural seeds. And as a result, even though more than 80 percent of Europe’s farmers say they would prefer to grow GMO crops, which offer larger yields and more profits, they instead grow non- GMO crops because there is virtually no market in the EU for GMOs as a result of labeling, which has its historical roots in the 1990s outbreak of BSE in England’s cattle.

So could GMO labeling in one state in the U.S. have a similar effect nationally? Yes.

This November, the citizens of California will be voting on a ballot initiative that would require all products containing GMOs to be labeled as such. The petition to put the initiative on the ballot easily garnered nearly a million signatures, nearly twice the number required, in a very short time, and from all indications, the measure will likely pass. That’s because labeling of products containing GMOs is one of the few unifying American issues that transcend party lines. A recent poll on the issue conducted by Mellman Group found that 91 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMOs in food products. And this percentage was relatively equal across all party affiliations, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The Mellman results were very similar to another national poll conducted in the U.S. in the early 1990s, which also found that nine out of 10 Americans supported GMO labeling.

So how and why will California’s vote likely impact Boulder County? Because differentiation costs a lot of money. California isn’t just another state. It has a population of 38 million and consumes more than 12 percent of all food products in the U.S. For giant food companies like Kraft, General Mills, Nestle and their peers to produce labeled foods for California and nonlabeled foods for the rest of us is not only excessively expensive, but pretty unrealistic in light of the fact that other states will most likely follow California’s lead. This means that labeling GMO products may well occur on a national level due to the California vote.

And if that happens, U.S. citizens will most likely follow the same choice patterns as their European counterparts. While mad cow has not been a particularly big issue in the U.S., we have, in recent years, lived through many serious episodes of drug and food recalls that have left many of us skeptical of the companies that produce the products, the regulators charged with overseeing the process and the industry-funded science that told us these items were safe and beneficial one decade only to find out they were killing us the next.

If consumers are given the choice to avoid GMOs and they do so, it will create a giant U.S. market for traditional, non-GMO crops of soy, corn, wheat, sugar beats, alfalfa, cotton, etc. To supply this new, non-GMO market, much, if not most, of our current U.S. cropland will have to be replanted with non-GMO seed. The market, not the law, will demand it. And regardless of the desires of most U.S. farmers to grow GMO crops, like their peers in the EU, they will have little choice but to return to traditional crops because there will be very few buyers for GMOs.

The one downside to GMOs being labeled nationally and thereby creating a quick and massive demand for non-GMO crops stems from the fact that in the U.S., nearly all of the crops mentioned above are between 80 and 90 percent grown from GMO seeds. Monsanto has raised the issue that if GMO seed fell from favor, there wouldn’t be enough traditional seed to replace it. And that could lead to an entirely different crisis, a food crisis.

So while the exact future of GMOs may be unclear, one thing is for sure, November will be blowing in some major changes for Boulder County and the rest of the country when it comes to GMOs.