Why Ag Industry Should Drop the GMO Labelling Battle

Posted in: Global Ag     

Ag professionals on the whole have confidence in the regulatory authorities responsible for ensuring that food production and processing systems are safe, reliable and based on scientific rules. After all, their livelihood depends on it.

Still, this has not protected the agriculture sector from critics intent on challenging basic industry practices and agronomic advances.

What’s most disturbing to farmers and the agribusiness sector is when those challenges made to farming practices are unfounded, misleading and lead to fear or doubt in the minds of consumers. 

As exasperating as this may be, it is the reality in a democratic society and seems unlikely to change. So, rather than expending time and energy on every false claim, I would like to suggest that the industry become more strategic in deciding which battles to fight and when it might make sense to back away.

Case in point: the push to label genetically modified food, which would include anything containing canola, corn, soybeans and sugar beets in Canada as the majority of their production is from GE seed varieties. 

One can safely assume that the majority of processed food products in North America contain ingredients from GE crops. In the 15-year history of GE food ingredients, there has not been a single death or sickness attributed to their use. Compare that to the one in six Americans, or 48 million people, who get sick from food-borne diseases each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Nonetheless, those campaigning against GE products will persevere, and in many ways, they have succeeded in raising doubts about GE food in the minds of a public far removed from the realities of farming. 

Europe is the best example of this success, where such products are not available in the marketplace. In North America, the tactic has been different. Opponents rationalized that if suitably terrified consumers knew which foods contain GE ingredients, they would stop buying them, demand would plummet and production would cease. 

For this to work, all food with GE ingredients must be labelled. So far, GE product suppliers have spent millions fighting this battle that has primarily taken place at the state referendum level in the U.S. and parliamentary level in Canada. 

At considerable expense to the industry, referendums on GE labelling have been defeated in a number of states. However, the results continue to narrow and opponents see a trend developing with the recent breakthrough of a labelling approval in Vermont. 

In Canada, mandatory GE labelling is an NDP and Green Party policy and has significant support in the urban-based Liberal Party. The Conservative Party is firmly opposed to mandatory labelling. 

However, consider this: Battles may still be won against mandatory labelling, but the war will eventually be lost. The industry seems to want to maintain the moral high ground clinging to science and common sense at any cost, but in a world in which many consumers remain uninformed and politicians remain fickle, that approach may be self-defeating. 

I suggest that perhaps the industry needs to embrace reality and change their tactic of opposing GE labelling by unilaterally abandoning their efforts to oppose compulsory GE labelling and letting the issue evolve as it may. 

After all, GE ingredients are so pervasive and widespread that nearly all food would have to be labelled. The reality is that most consumers do not read labels, and without any indication that GE ingredients can cause injury or death, consumers have little incentive to read any label or to search out alternatives. 

This approach could see a short-term hit to sales, but in the long run consumers tend to vote with taste, availability and price when it comes to food. 

Ironically, a victory for mandatory GE food labelling would actually be a loss to the lobby groups that presently support the campaign. Most of these well-oiled lobby groups have become sophisticated marketing organizations that strategize and rally around causes that can produce a steady stream of income in the form of donations. It is not in their financial interests to see their cause come to an end. 

However, such groups will find other causes or angles to disparage agricultural production and food processing — after all, they too are trying to run a business. What the agriculture and food business needs to do in dealing with these dubious threats is to have a more flexible, strategic position that allows them to switch gears quickly and remain tactical. In the end, this will preserve the industry’s much-needed resources earmarked for public education, while allowing it to better outflank its critics.

About the Author
Will Verboven

Will Verboven is a regular agricultural columnist covering policy issues and industry trends in Canada and the U.S.

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