On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban states from requiring special labels for all “genetically modified” foods. Known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, it advanced by a vote of 275 to 150.
A deeply concerned contingent of detractors, meanwhile, calls it the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act. Which sounds much worse. And it accurately recapitulates the case for mandatory labeling, which consistently returns to the argument that people have a “right to know what's in their food.”
“What’s the problem with letting consumers know what they are buying?” argued Peter Welch, a Democratic representative from Vermont, one of three states that has already passed mandatory “GMO labeling” laws.
Who doesn’t want to know what’s in their food? As pro-rights arguments go, that sounds pretty airtight.
Except that the act doesn’t deny people that right. Nothing will stop food manufacturers who avoid "genetically modified" ingredients from labeling and marketing their products accordingly. People who object to genetic modification—either because of concerns about the prudence of introducing certain crops into certain ecosystems, or because of patent laws and corporate business practices, or because these people are among the majority of Americans who now believe any and all “genetically modified” foods to be inherently unhealthful to consume (despite assurances to the contrary from The World Health Organization, Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, and American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others)—can continue to pay premiums for products that are marketed as “GMO free,” which implies health and safety, even while the implication is without merit. Some go so far as to call it fraud.
The central and debilitating fallacy of the “right to know” argument is the meaninglessness and misleading nature of what is being known. Humans have been practicing bioengineering for centuries with selective breeding and cultivation. The Non-GMO Project defines “genetically modified organisms” as those “artificially manipulated in a laboratory” as opposed to “traditional cross-breeding methods,” wherein a laboratory is the nidus of transgression. It was only as recently as 1979 that Gallatin Valley Seed won the All American Selection Award for creating a variety of pea known as sugar snap, which is now ubiquitous, but carries no Franken-crop warning label. Indeed, most any act of agriculture could be considered an imposition of “unnatural” human activity into malleable, unassuming ecosystems. The domain of bioengineering is too vast and complex to know what exactly to make of blanket “GMO” labels; the hopeful premise that this is a binary indicator of good or evil is false. Should I have the “right to know” if my food contains ghosts?
Long-term effects of introducing certain crops into certain ecosystems, and the business practices with which they are grown and sold, are enormously important and remain to be seen and carefully considered. Some effects of agriculture will be desirable, some untoward, and effects of both kinds will come from crops that run the gamut of what has been “modified” by human intervention, and to what degree. But “GMO-free” does not mean fair trade, and it does not mean sustainable, and it does not mean monoculture-averting, and it does not mean rainforest-enabling, and it does not mean labor-friendly, and it does not mean healthy, though it puffs its chest and carries itself alongside those claims. Activists march with signs that say “I AM NOT AN EXPERIMENT.” But the state of having 7 billion food-consuming humans on this planet—6 billion more than there were two centuries ago—is an unprecedented experiment.
It’s because of this meaninglessness, and fear perpetuated by a “natural” food industry, that a right to know is in this case a right to be misled. And this act continues to give food companies the right to tout and sell “GMO-free” as some halo of wholesome virtue, which would be lovely and elegant if it meant progress toward sustainably feeding the world healthful food, but it does not.