GMOs and your right to know: be careful what you wish for…
That’s probably the most alarmist description I’ve heard to describe Genetically Modified Organisms. GMOs, for the benefit of those who don’t know, are organisms (food plants are the subject of most of the current debate around this topic) whose genome has been specifically modified to result in some desired characteristics. For example, Monsanto has developed GMO crops whose genome prevents them from being killed by their herbicide, RoundUp, thus allowing fields to be sprayed with RoundUp, killing weeds while the crop survives. There are many other motivations for GMOs, too.
People around the world have expressed concerns that GMOs may result in the law of unintended consequences, with downstream damage outweighing the benefit years from now. Everything from environmental damage from herbicide overuse, to the dilution of the gene pool of native species are very reasonable concerns.
Accordingly, consumers around the world have either prohibited the sale of GMO food (Europe), or are pushing for specific labeling of GMO foods (USA). In any case, GMOs are a source of very vocal debates.
I’m not advocating one way or the other on GMOs. As a technical person myself, I have mixed emotions on the topic. My intention here is not to lobby one way or the other. My intention here is to advise you that if you are in favor of bans, or labels, be careful what you wish for. Because the Law of Unintended Consequences may just jump up and bite you in the behind.
As a small food manufacturer myself, I can tell you that bans and increased labeling requirements WILL have a negative impact on small manufacturers. The only way for me, as a manufacturer, to say definitively whether a product is, or is not, a GMO is to have it tested. The GMO test is a central lab test (you have to send a sample out to a lab), which takes a week or two and costs about $250.
Now that may not sound like a big deal, and for General Mills, making Cheerios, it’s not, really. But for a company like ours, it is. Because we deal in micro-lots of things. We may buy a two-bag lot of coffee (about 250 pounds). We may obtain just a ton of corn for our artisan corn products (that’s actually a small amount for most mills). We buy these small lots because they are unique and tasty. Customers like them. And usually, they are not accompanied by any substantial pedigree, other than perhaps an oral history from the grower. And a testing requirement would add about two dollars per pound (or more) – about 18% – to many of the products we sell. The number is that high because not only do we have to get the testing done (that’s the easy part), but we also have to maintain the records… for years.
If GMO labeling becomes required, I can predict one thing with certainty: your food choices will diminish.
Because it between the two extremes of “yes, it is GMO”, and “no, it’s not GMO”, is the middle ground that much of the food from small producers will occupy: “I don’t think it is, but I’m not sure”. And getting from there to either of the other alternatives will destroy the economic viability of the enterprise. I know this as surely as the sun rises in the East.
What I’m proposing is an alternative to the current label proposals. The current proposals are essentially one proposal: GMOs must be labeled as such. By default, then, things not labeled as GMO are not GMO. Very tidy, but unrealistic if you want small producers to survive. Because a proposal that all GMOs be labeled inherently requires that all products be tested – because the only way to know whether somethings is, or is not, GMO, is to test it.
What I propose then are three labels:
- Tested, found to be non-GMO
- Tested, found to be GMO
In practice, you will only ever find labels 1 and 3, because there is really no contingent of customers I know of who go around saying “I’d rather eat GMOs”. But I suspect there are an awful lot of people who don’t care much one way or the other, and don’t want to incur the expense of testing (because ultimately it is passed on to the consumer), and/or don’t want their favorite small suppliers going out of business over it.
So if you’re one of those people advocating for GMO labeling, make sure you think through the consequences of what you’re wishing for.