By Katey Parker
(Partnerships & Media Manager, Just Label It)
At yesterday’s Center for Food Integrity Summit, British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas claimed that biotechnology would feed world hunger, promised that genetically engineered foods are safe and charged that groups who advocate labeling of GMO foods are fear-mongers and conspiracy theorists.
However, Lynas’ message dovetailed with the message of environmental and health activists in one crucial respect: “Who can disagree,” he asked rhetorically, “with the right to know what is in your food?”
This is the very same message the Just Label It has spent the last two years spreading. It’s the very principle on which the GE labeling movement was founded.
Lynas was once a vociferous anti-GMO activist, but he has since made a 180-degree turn and now calls himself a staunch supporter of genetic engineering. At a farming conference at Oxford University earlier this year, he charged that biotech critics were “anti-science” and dismissed objections to genetically engineered foods as “green urban myths.”
But, as Lynas has articulated, both sides have common cause in the public’s right to know. Whether you support biotechnology, vehemently oppose it or fall somewhere in between, you want to know more, not less, about the food you eat and feed your family.
As we were reminded during last year’s debate over California’s Proposition 37 initiative, which would have labeled GMO food sold in California, and as we see playing out in Washington state, where voters are considering a similar labeling initiative known as I-522, Big Food has the money to fight anything that is not in its interest. Whether it’s defending junk food advertisements aimed at children or ethanol mandates, its pockets run deep.
Big Food can’t overcome one looming obstacle: its customers want transparency, and, as the ancient business maxim goes, the customers are always right. They want to know what hidden ingredients exist in the food they buy. They might decide to buy genetically engineered foods, but they want the right to make fully informed decisions.
Lynas is wrong to insist that GE foods are safe. Scientists won’t know for sure if eating these foods is truly safe for a long time, possibly generations. People are rightly concerned about skyrocketing herbicide use and lack of government oversight and independent testing, and it’s not far off to say that Americans are part of a living science experiment. We should be able to choose whether or not we want to participate in this experiment every time we shop for food.
It’s refreshing to see that a pro-GMOer can also be a labeling advocate. As Lynas points out, if biotechnology is truly a great invention, shouldn’t its creators and users be shouting it from the rooftops? Transparency increases trust, which is something brands like Kellogg’s and General Mills are now losing daily.
Washington state’s GE labeling initiative, I-522, is an important step on the path towards a national policy that will address this issue for us all. If passed, it would not only give Washingtonians the right to know, but would also inspire a broader national conversation about this crucial food issue. The I-522 debate will help ensure that someday soon, every American in every state will enjoy the same right to know as citizens of 64 nations that require labeling of foods with GE ingredients.
If the major food and chemical companies are smart, they will follow Lynas’ lead. As Lynas put it, “My challenge to the biotech industry – the whole food industry in general fact – is very clear. You have to stop opposing labeling. Instead, you have to embrace the consumer right to know.”
The debate about genetically engineered foods will rage on. In the meantime, it’s time we arm consumers with a small piece of useful information that both sides have deemed necessary – a label.