The Editorial Board of The New York Times declared a few days ago that it “is a bad idea” for the United States Senate to join the United States House of Representatives in trying “to make it harder for consumers to know what is in their food by prohibiting state governments from requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods.” The NYT EB went on to say that “lawmakers and the Obama administration should oppose” this bill and that “[t]here is no harm in providing consumers more information about their food.”
And I would add that, as reported earlier in The NYT, the CEO of Campbell Soup Company has stated that “…establishment of a national mandatory labeling standard to take effect over a period of time would allow companies to work the changes into their business operations with little cost [emphasis added].” Consumers Union has also concluded that the cost of labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods would be minimal.
The NYT EB also cited the numerous polls–some two dozen–on this general subject of GE labeling that have been conducted in the United States since 1992 (two years before the first GE crop was commercialized); and in all of them the vast majority of Americans (~70-96%) indicated that they want GE foods and GE ingredients labeled as such.
That is the good news…The New York Times is in favor of labeling GE foods and food ingredients.
My question is why has it taken so long for a major U.S. newspaper to take a stand in favor of what the vast majority of Americans have indicated they wanted for some two dozen years?
My short answer is that having a member of “Big Food” like Campbell Soup not only support mandatory GE/GMO labeling but also state that companies could label GMO ingredients “with little cost” is likely a big factor in turning this two-decades-old tide.
But what made Campbell Soup change its stance? After all, according to The NYT, “Campbell joined other major food companies in fighting efforts to impose mandatory labeling in California and Washington State, spending more than $1 million, according to the Environmental Working Group. It is also a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group that has spent millions trying to get a bill passed in Congress that would make labeling voluntary and pre-empt state labeling efforts.”
My guess is that the delay of the U.S. media and U.S. food companies in coming to what I believe is the “right” decision for a democratic, capitalist society like the United States has something to do with “the forces that cause scientists and other experts to mislead us,” a subject explored by David H. Freedman is his book appropriately titled Wrong. Freedman has been “covering science, business and technology [for Scientific American, for example] for 30 years.”
The bigger subject, of how societies decide whether and how to adopt new technologies, is an important one. For crop genetic engineering, this process has been going on for nearly a quarter century. New “genetic engineering” technologies are now being introduced. It’s time to take stock of what we (might) have learned from the introduction of what, for want of a better term, I shall refer to as “traditional genetic engineering.”