Fresh Absurdity in GMO Labels

A mission to rid government of corporate influence has led Bernie Sanders astray on a crucial point about the future of food.

Bernie Sanders eats a hot dog in Coney Island, New York, April 10, 2016 (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Quietly amid the chaos of last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that will inform human health in far-reaching ways—requiring labelling of foods that contain “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs).

Expected to move to the House this week, the bill sets a national standard, avoiding the possibility that all 50 states would enact unique requirements for food producers. Foods will either bear a standardized USDA symbol, plain-language labeling, or a scannable QR code.

But among some advocates for GMO labelling, there was a outrage over the passage of the bill.

At its heart was Bernie Sanders, who favored a stricter mandatory labeling law that just went into effect in his home state of Vermont, after a legal battle with Monsanto. Sanders also expressed concern that the bill leaves loopholes around certain foods like salmon and high-fructose corn syrup, and that  QR codes are “confusing to consumers.”

In fighting the bipartisan measure, Sanders has been praised by some activists for “stand[ing] up to the Monsanto machine that has successfully lobbied Washington and shut down multiple bills that would require GMO labeling.” As Sanders makes the case to his followers, the issue is very much about preventing corporate influence: Biotechnology companies “have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions to overturn the GMO right-to-know legislation that states have already passed.”

“This is not a complicated issue,” an exasperated Sanders said in a press conference on Wednesday. “The American people have a right to know what they’re eating.”

It is, though, a very complicated issue, one that Sanders has approached with more nuance in the past. Yet this sweeping sentiment came through on both sides on Wednesday, with Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow, who brokered the bill’s passage, saying that her interest was in “recogniz[ing] the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food.”

Of course, biotechnology is not safe, or unsafe. Just like communication technology is not safe or unsafe. Transportation technology is not safe or unsafe.

None of these things can be labeled good or bad, either. They are collections of processes whose value in any instance is relative to a specific use in a specific circumstance.

As commonly used today, “GMO” refers not to modification that happens in every instance of breeding—and in every moment of every day where environmental factors determine the expression of genes—but to one particular mechanism of modification. The current bill defines GMOs as entities that “contain genetic material that has been modified through in-vitro, recombinant DNA techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Predicting what might be found in nature poses a challenge, if you’ve seen some of the things produced in nature. This includes the natural process of selective breeding that humans have undertaken for millennia to cultivate seedless grapes or sugar-snap peas or transform wolves into labradoodles.

Instead of debating whether communication technology or transportation technology is good or bad, safe or unsafe, we talk about specific issues that arise around specific types and uses of technology in particular contexts (net neutrality, self-driving cars, Mark Zuckerberg’s emergence as a demigod). Biotechnology is no different. There will be questions about whether certain seeds have certain effects in certain places—as with the corn in Iowa that has led to increased use of glyphosate and other herbicides with detrimental environmental repercussions. There are critical questions to be addressed about intellectual property rights over seeds and corporate control of the food supply.

Creating a sustainable agricultural infrastructure to feed an enormous population, though, is the challenge of our era. The number of people on the planet has grown seven-fold since 1800. The majority of us are malnourished in ways that manifest as obesity, heart disease, diabetes—inflating $3 trillion in annual healthcare spending. Gene recombination will inevitably be central to discussion about how to feed so many people in so little space, if we continue to farm and eat as we do while the population skyrockets.

I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic. It will more likely be a sort of colony collapse, when our food system can’t meet our demands (or continues to meet our demands at the expense of rising oceans and severe weather events that lead to more poverty, famine, mass migration, and war). Drought-resistant, pest-resistant, high-yield crops will be a tool in these extenuating circumstances. To impede them will affect the people among us with the most tenuous access to food—those who are not so privileged as to pay premiums for “non-GMO” products at Whole Foods, who are rarely even part of this discussion.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Sanders’ calls for freeing legislators from lobbying interests have been widely well received, and generally crucial. And Monsanto did lobby Washington (in excess of $1 million already this year), as have others in the agriculture and biotechnology sectors. Demonstrators even poured cash over the balcony in the halls of Congress to symbolize “Monsanto money,” going light on subtlety in implying that the integrity of their legislators had been bought.

But this is a case where Sanders’ anti-corporate revolutionary mission is obscuring a level-headed approach. Prominent, blanket labeling of all products that contain any trace of in-vitro recombinant DNA technology only further polarizes discussion, penalizing all use of the technology and limiting the odds of implementing it as judiciously and safely as possible.