Should there be required labeling of GMOs?

Here is one on-the-mark take (of many):

…there have been more than 300 independent medical studies on the health and safety of genetically modified foods. The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and many others have reached the same determination that foods made using GM ingredients are safe, and in fact are substantially equivalent to conventional alternatives. As a result, the FDA does not require labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients because it acknowledges they may mislead consumers into thinking there could be adverse health effects, which has no basis in scientific evidence.

Or try the National Academy of Sciences from 2010:

Many U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits — such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields — compared with conventional crops, says a new report from the National Research Council.

Here is a good NYT summary Op-Ed on that report.  There is not the scientific evidence for Mark Bittman’s recent evaluation that:

G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea — far from it — nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.

It’s the tag there that is problematic.  He doesn’t offer a citation, nor has he in past columns offered convincing material to back this evaluation (you can read here for a somewhat more detailed account from Bittman; it simply minimizes benefits and does not support “by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive”).  This earlier critique of Bittman is on the mark on virtually every point.

The standards of evidence being applied here are extremely weak.  In that last Bittman link he wrote that:

…The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops…

The link is to a sensationalistic Daily Mail (tabloid) story, yet that gets translated into “has been attributed by some.”  In that story, the suicides were caused by indebtedness and supposedly the debts were in part caused by a desire by farmers to buy GMO crops.  In comparable terms one could write that anything one spends money on could cause suicide through the medium of indebtedness.

By the way, the Wikipedia treatment gives some more detailed citations suggesting that GMO crops are not a significant cause of farmer suicides in India.  The most careful study of the matter reports this:

We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons. Third, our analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. In contrast, many other factors have likely played a prominent role.

I would in fact be more supportive of the GMO labeling idea if renowned food writers such as Bittman, and many others including left-wing economists, would come out and boldly proclaim the science about GMOs to their readers.  Too often the tendency is to use a “I’ll try not to say anything literally incorrect, while insinuating there are big problems” method of scoring points against big agriculture.  (Another common trope is to switch the discussion to “distribution” and to suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a net benefit technology such as GMOs is somehow unnecessary or undesirable; dare I utter the words “mood affiliation“?)  GMO labeling is the one issue which has gained legal traction, so critics of “Big Ag” just can’t bring themselves to give it up.

Bittman’s whole column is about GMOs, but he gets at the important point only in his final sentence:

[With better information] We’d be able to make saner choices, and those choices would greatly affect Big Food’s ability to freely use genetically manipulated materials, an almost unlimited assortment of drugs and inhumane and environmentally destructive animal-production methods.

Overuse of antibiotics and animal treatment (both cruelty and environmental issues) — now those are two very real problems, backed by overwhelming scientific evidence.  The fact that the California referendum is instead about GMOs — which have overwhelming scientific evidence for net benefit and minimal risks — is the real scandal.

It’s time that our most renowned food writers woke up to that difference.  In the meantime, they are doing both us and themselves a deep disservice.


You could engineer a GMO to kill everyone. Or it could be the cat's pajamas. Or, a lot of effort goes into avoiding the first, aspiring to the second and ending up in the middle. But they aren't awesome by magic. Are we against all kinds of labeling, or is this just being pro-GMO because labeling something GMO would confuse the sheep? All the while the X-rays continue at the airport. And the health aspect isn't the only or biggest thing and isn't even the thing at all. It's like the parenting argument that claims parenting doesn't matter because kids all turn out kind of the same. But that's the point of parenting!

We aren't against "all kinds of labeling," only onerous mandatory labeling of a product for which there is no evidence of a safety risk. And a bunch of bluster about nuclear bombs and genetically created poison does not constitute such evidence.

Relevant XKCD:


Glad to see the link to XKCD, it pretty much rebuts the question: "What's wrong with requiring GMO labeling?" in 3 panels.

I'll support GMO labeling if the pro-Organic folks will support mandatory labels saying that these crops were fertilized with animal feces and not treated for potential diseases on all "organic" products.

Those selling only products made with traditional, shot-in-the-dark GM methods (i.e. crossbreeding) are free to label their products as such, are they not? Why compel speech of questionable value when voluntary speech solves the alleged problem just as well?

I think that the arguments against GMO due to health concerns are irrational. However, in my opinion, the patent law has been egregiously misused in multiple cases in regards to GMOs. I think there is substantial and significant economic and ethical issues that arise out of having the world's food supply based on a tightly controlled corporate secret.

"I think that the arguments against GMO due to health concerns are irrational."

Really? Do you dispute this kind of stuff?

By "genetically modifying" we mean "can do almost anything that is viable...viable to the plant that is, not to us." Now, you can do the study to prevent this kind of risk getting out, but you have to do the study to prevent this kind of risk getting out. I have no idea what people mean when they say GMO has minimal risk because it is only after the proper incentives and heroic efforts. It's called the "invisible hand" because of our own ignorance not the omnipotent hand. I certainly don't understand the implication that "there is no evidence of harm." It literally took me 3 seconds on Google. Then there is the real issue, you extract every last bit of yield from every last bit of farmable space (corporate secret or not) then where is your robustness?

Interesting, but there are already labeling requirements for allergens.

Yes, but under current law, you would only get "contains soy;" not "contains soy grown with brazil nut protiens". A person allergic to brazil nuts would have to know that soy now carries the same risks. I have no idea if that is now common knowldedge or not.

That is a good point, but a generic "made with GM" label wouldn't really solve this problem either.

No soy (GM or not) carries brazil nut proteins. Nor is it likely to.

Exactly. I know many consumers that want to avoid GMO not because of health concerns, but because it comes hand in hand with production-techniques that give too much control to the patent holders, and not enough control to the farmers. They are buying non-GMO food for the same reason the buy Max Havelaar (or other fair trade) bananas. If it wasn't possible to patent plants, GMO would have a much better reputation.

I know many consumers that want to avoid GMO not because of health concerns, but because it comes hand in hand with production-techniques that give too much control to the patent holders, and not enough control to the farmers.

Exclusive rights to plants is not something that is unique to GM plants. Plant variety rights (plant patents) are granted to traditional breeders who produce new varieties of plants. So this is not something unusual to GMOs.

"I know many consumers that want to avoid GMO not because of health concerns, but because it comes hand in hand with production-techniques that give too much control to the patent holders, and not enough control to the farmers. They are buying non-GMO food for the same reason the buy Max Havelaar (or other fair trade) bananas."

The only problem with that argument is that fair trade removes a lot of the control of farmers as they have to comply with the instructions of a company with its HQ in the developed world - but I guess it doesn't count as they have good intentions or something of the sort

I don't quite understand your point. To get a patent, you have to reveal secrets in a publicly-available format, in exchange for a period of monopoly. A tightly controlled corporate secret can't be something that corporate has a patent on, corporates (or anyone else) use confidentiality agreements to keep a secret, not patent law. Are you say that patent law has not been applied properly to GMOs? Are you calling for forced patenting?

Yes. The understanding of IP law seems about on par with the understanding of GMO foods. A company can choose to protect something either as a 'trade secret' or by patent, but not both. A patent requires public disclosure and, in return, provides protection for only a limited time Which is why Coca Cola protects its 'secret formula' as a trade secret and NOT with a patent. If they patented the formula, they would have to disclose it and others would be free to use the formula once the patent expired.

Also the anti-IP rationale for rejecting GMO-labelled food doesn't hold up either because plant varieties produced through traditional breeding and hybridization are also often patented.

Focusing on the loose language misses NPW's main point. It seems he's saying that the sort of entity that can afford GM techniques vs. traditional ones is more likely to be a Monsanto-like behemoth, to which many wouldn't feel comfortable giving a near stranglehold on the food supply.

I thought he was making a complaint about IP law, because of his talk about patents and corporate secrets. If it was the mere cost of doing GM techniques, I don't see how changing IP would help.

To be more precise, my objection is not to the health concerns related to GM food but to the power structure that it creates for corporations who own the patent. I do not reject or refuse to eat GM food, but this does not mean I unequivocally support the current process. I am unconvinced that GM foods are unhealthy for humans, but I do think that corporations like Monsanto are unhealthy for our system as a whole. I do not think Monsanto would be a problem if the legal system held it in check.
Your collective points on my sloppy wording are well justified, but you’re completely bypassing the point I was making.
Similarly, the fact that traditional breeders are given patents also does not mean that the patent system regarding our food is a good thing.
I think that there is sufficient evidence to argue that that balance of power is being altered in a non-productive manner with GMO patent holding companies. Being opposed to how GM is altering our food system is not the same as believing that GM food is unhealthy.

But you're missing the point that patents are inherently public (not secret) and they expire, so the only way that large agribusiness can maintain 'a stranglehold' is to keep improving seed varieties at such a rate that the out-of-patent seeds are clearly inferior. That they'll be able to do this is by no means a given -- 'big pharma' faces the same problem, and in many cases they're having a very hard time bringing new blockbuster drugs to market that are significantly better than the ones going off patent (see 'Lipitor').

I don't follow the point you're trying to make. I'm quite prepared to believe that the patent system is not a good thing, but if the problem is the temporary monopoly over GM foods that patents give then that calls for quite a different intervention than if the problem is corporate secrets. If corporate secrets are the problem, we might want to beef up patent protections in order to induce corporates to publish their secrets.

Or do you just want a ban on corporations like Monsanto?

I don't see how I am bypassing the point you are making. You wrote 3 sentences, 1 of which was a statement about what you weren't worried about. And I didn't understand the conflict between the other 2 sentences.

I do think that corporations like Monsanto are unhealthy for our system as a whole

Out of curiousity is there any evidence that could convince you that corporations like Monsanto are healthy for the system as a whole? (I don't have an empirically-based opinion one way or another on this topic).

Trade secrets will never be a problem because you send the genes within every seed you sell. Thus, the argument that patents make the invention public is invalid. (It may be valid for traditional breeders, but as technology progrides, soon it won't be anymore.)

That said, patents over our agricultural production is a bad thing, and patents over things that reproduce is a bad thing. Patents setled by courts the way they (the courts) are implemented now is a very bad thing, and corportations like Monsanto are a bad thing (but no, a direct ban would be worse, that is a problem that is better addressed by dealing with the simptoms).

"Out of curiousity is there any evidence that could convince you that corporations like Monsanto are healthy for the system as a whole?"

You can try to invalidade the enourmous body of evidence that points that it is bad, altough that is too big a task for a lone researcher. Or, if you came up with some actual benefit those corps bring that can potentialy be bigger than the costs, with evidence to back that it is indeed that big, I'd setle at the "undecided" stattus... What really are the benefits of having huge corporations like Monsanto?

Loony tunes. If there were no patents there would be no agricultural innovation because copying is way too easy. How could patents possibly be bad in this situation or give someone "too much power"? No one is forcing them to use patented seed! I am a patent attorney and yet as a policy matter I think patents are a net negative in a number of industries. But not agriculture, and not pharma.

And if there is such an "enormous body of evidence" that some company is bad just because it's big, I hope you can provide even one link? No one has ever collected some of this evidence? Why isn't Apple bad?

Please tell us more about your arbitrary biases.

You can try to invalidade the enourmous body of evidence that points that it is bad, altough that is too big a task for a lone researcher.

The obvious reason to doubt any such claimed body of evidence is that people are living longer and healthier than ever before.

Or, if you came up with some actual benefit those corps bring that can potentialy be bigger than the costs,

Is Monsanto making a profit without government subsidies? If so, then the benefits that corporation brings is greater than the costs, because that means that the people buying the products value it more than the sum of the inputs going into making them. If it's only making a profit because of government subsidies, end the subsidies. If it's not making a profit, and won't in the future, the market will put it out of business sooner or later.

So... You're saying that what you really want is food labeling that informs consumers that certain foods are made by evil big companies instead of small farms?

"Warning: This product was made by a firm that has more than 50 employees. Such firms are dangerous and not to be trusted."

"Warning: Food contains material handled by employees of Monsanto, which we all know is detrimental to the health of our food supply."

:"Warning: Capitalism involved in the manufacture of this product."

I think Jared Diamond could make an argument that GMOs are a small change from previous food production techniques. Selective breeding of 'natural mutants' formed the basis of our staple crops. We just make the mutants ourselves now.

If there is a great stagnation (I'm still not persuaded) the generalized fear of technology of which anti-GM, anti-vaccines and anti-nuclear power are the most prominent, could well be major contributors.

Last one: I'm not one to scream from rooftops, but every time this comes up I want to yell "This is our FOOD!" and the master plan seems to be to create a mono-crop of Soylent Green pills owned by Monsanto, genetically tweaked just-so.

You realize why vaccines have all that crap in them? Because just injecting stuff into people kills them. So an a$$load of work goes into making vaccines safe (adjuvants, anti-bacterials, studies on adverse reactions, etc.)...and they still kill people.

These are complex systems. We have proponents always claim they are perfectly safe. This is a lie. It fuels the detractors who also lie. Now the proponents have to double down on the "no known problems" fib. This gets the false dichotomy/dialectic engine going. Luckily for vaccines, parents are extorted into having to use them.

With Nuclear, it was obviously dangerous (e.g. bombs) so to be safe we standardized on a relatively unsafe (fail-to-disaster) design which ironically keeps nuclear unsafe as long as new designs can't get the a$$load of work required to prove them out because people lump nuclear as one thing and sort themselves into the "pro-nuclear" or "anti-nuclear" tribes. And so, we are stuck with unsafe nuclear and far less safe oil and coal. All to boil water, btw.

1. You mostly are wrong about vaccines. The biggest reason to have adjuvents, additives, etc. is to keep that vaccine stable and effective, not to keep it safe.
2. You are falling into the trap of treating GMOs as a unitary issue around which we can have a meaningful debate. This is false. GMOs are not a unitary technology. RoundupReady is different than Bt. Drought-tolerant crops are different than making sushi with fluorescent fish. "Chemistry" is not a meaningful technology around which we can have a policy debate, but "mercury emissions from coal burning" is and so is "quaternium-18: is it safe to put in our shampoos". GMO is like "chemistry" and objection to GMOs per se really nothing but Luddism.

Does the "master plan" involve rampant locavore-ism and organic growing techniques? Because those are spreading like wildfire.

And don't forget cellphones cooking your brains, or Wi-Fi killing all the honeybees.

Jews have strict dietary requirements, about which most people could not care less. There is an amazingly effective voluntary system of kosher labelling of foods. Manufacturers label their food Kosher (Dairy or Parve or Meat) voluntarily, Jews trust the rabbinical authority that has given that certification, and the rabbis make a nice income on the side. It works perfectly.

I would never think of making Kosher food labelling a law or legal requirement, or government run (the horror), and forcing taxpayers to pay for that.

Similarly those who have religious beliefs related to GMO foods, or organic foods, or whatever - and these are nothing more or less than religions - could set up a GMO labelling system that manufacturers could voluntarily comply with.

But, as is so typical of leftists, they want to enforce their religion through the state, and make all taxpayers pay for their beliefs.

"Similarly those who have religious beliefs related to GMO foods, or organic foods...could set up a GMO labelling system."

I actually would suggest that environmentalists and others establish standards for labeling a food "non GMO" and then let manufacturers label the food as such. Organic, or free range, or fair trade, or whole grain, or nonfat foods are already labeled in such a way, aren't they?

The way that they are going about it seems to indicate that GMO labeling is more about shaming manufacturers/consumers than anything else. Scarlet letters.

What annoys me the most about the "label it for information" crowd is that the USDA Organic standard and label already provides a GMO-free alternative. So there is already an effective voluntary regulatory system and label in place. Why do we need a mandatory system?

"Similarly those who have religious beliefs related to GMO foods, or organic foods, or whatever – and these are nothing more or less than religions – could set up a GMO labelling system that manufacturers could voluntarily comply with."


This is not really a left-right issue. Anti-GM commenter Andrew' above is one of the more right-wing regulars on this blog's comments. And I'm a Berkeley CA leftie who thinks Prop. 37 and the anti-GM crowd are ill-informed and foolish, just as I think the Michelle Bachmann / Rick Santorum "Values Voters" crowd are racists and idiots.

If GMO was such a "good" thing, those who sell should be HAPPY and EAGER and STOMPING AT THE BIT to label it GMO. After all, it is such a GOOD THING!!!

Why do they insist on HIDING IT???

Anti GMO is based both on the huge misunderstanding that any agricultural profuct is natural and a hatred of the evils of "industrial farming."

The anti industrial farming angle is the most important I think. Writers like Bittman love the idea of some sort of artisanal farming which is modelled on a bucolic vision of cute little garden patches lovingly tended by people who really care. They have no problem with "natural" seed modification to produce say a tomato bush that can grow on an urban porch. They just object to the reality of farming as it has been practised since the 1960s.

Notice how all criticism of modern farming has a component about caring for the producers and making people more human, etc... If you listen to a lot of this you start realizing how incohernent and internally inconsistent it is. They demand seed drills and no till methods to save the soil while simultaneously objecting to the herbicides and pesticides such things require because a major purpose of tilling is to destroy weeds and disrupt pest life cycles. They love using therapeutic imagery such as "resting the soil" or "healing the land" and "natural cycles."

This is not scientific thinking.

Interestingly I am associated with a very crunchy university and it has some very idealistic ag experts who are nothing if not committed to organic farming without pesticides, they run experimental farms that would make every foodie hipster in Portland weep for joy, except they are ALL working on GMO crops.

Anti GMO is based both on the huge misunderstanding that any agricultural profuct is natural and a hatred of the evils of “industrial farming.”

Yes, "natural" is a term bandied about by many who have a great deal of difficulty defining what it means.

And often these same types push "whole grains". As if. See the Wheat category on William Davis' blog

Wheat bran is perhaps the most nutrient-dense food on the planet.

This may be a minority perspective, but for some of us the motivation isn't to avoid "frankenfoods" but to avoid Monsanto because of their bullying. P.S. strongly agree re: antibiotics and CAFOs.

Drug and GMO Warriors, Unite!

Avoiding GMOs is no guarantee of avoiding Monsanto (they sell plenty of non-GMO seeds as well).

I'm the CEO of a rather large agricultural enterprise whose name you would recognize if I were to reveal it. As soon as I get through with this I'm going to instruct my underlings to change this company dramatically, shrink its size, become more responsive to people that complain about our business practices and generally become swell guys. In exchange I expect you to purchase all your food products from us, even if the prices are significantly higher than our uncaring competition. There better be plenty of you to go along with the program because this is real democracy, you're voting with your Visa card.

In India, genetically engineered cotton has been very effective for farmers overall. It increased yields, profits, and living standards of smallholder farmers, according to a long-term study recently published in PNAS:

Empirical evidence notwithstanding, the anti-GMO campaign led by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth continues with as much zeal as ever, harming millions of poor people in developing countries:

The threats these campaigns pose to global food security are underestimated because many applications of genetic engineering remain stuck in the regulatory process or are never taken to market, i.e. what you see is NOT all there is (or could be).

It looks like Mark Bittman sometimes loses sight of the facts in his enthusiasm for and advocacy of more political intervention in decisions about how consumers spend their money on food.

Mark Bittman Corrects Fact-Resistant Food Policy Analysts...Such As Mark Bittman

Two months before he set the record straight concerning the relative price of junk food, Bittman was positively giddy about obesity maven Kelly Brownell's proposal to discourage consumption of politically incorrect foods through taxes and encourage the consumption of politically correct foods through subsidies, calling the challenge of implementing this elaborate price control scheme "fun" and "inspiring."

As I noted at the time, Bittman overlooked not only the moral and practical issues raised by Brownell's vision but the seemingly relevant fact that price is not the reason people prefer potato chips to collard greens.

He was so undeterred by readily observable facts that he even recommended subsidies for "dried legumes," one of the cheapest foods on the planet, with the aim of "making healthy food more affordable." Since then, Bittman seems to have visited a grocery store, but in his more recent column he never admits that he was "just plain wrong" in July.

What does (some) healthy food being cheaper than (some) junk food have to do with whether or not subsidizing healthy food and taxing junk food would increase health food consumption and decrease junk food consumption?

Price sensitivity doesn't disappear just because one partial substitute is already cheaper than the other.

I have no regard for the anti-technology crowd just as I have no regard for the anti-government crowd; both are equally wacko

1. It is amazing how, whenever its favors the Fortune 500, so called libertarians, suddenly turn into toadies for the rich.

2. The law is about what the kind of society in which we live. Are consumers to have access to information, thus able to decide for themselves. Or, are those in power going to cite some study---tobacco studies found tobacco safe once---and derive people the right to make informed decisions.

3. Of course, what is really the rub is that GMOs again show that government, big, strong, effective government, is necessary now and will become increasingly necessary in the future to assure the health and safety of us all.

Without a big, strong, effective government could we trust the studies?

The path forward, of necessity, is going to be toward greater and greater regulation. Why, because just as GMO can make a food taste better, it can also turn such into a deadly poison in ways wholly beyond your understanding. Every technology is going to require an ever greater exercise of supervision, regulation, and control.

For example, E. Coli is starting to show up around the round that is different and drug resistant. Who knows why. Genes are jumping from animal to animal and perhaps from plant to animal. We don't yet know all that much about how the gut works, all those bacteria and regulate our eating, etc.. Google the Discover story "Gut bacteria in Japanese people borrowed sushi-digesting genes from ocean bacteria."

In sum, this is the kind of posing you get now--TC is just trying to get noticed.

Without a big, strong, effective government could we trust the studies?

You must be trolling.

trolling = the practiced art of pointing out the mendacity and hypocrisy of posers like TC.

Cowen talks small ball but notice how, whenever its suits his purpose his uses Government, this time studies made to appear legitimate because we happen to have a government with more than limited powers

"Who knows why."

Scientists quite often.

Funny how when policies favor the foreign poor, libertarians become toadies for the poor. Funny how libertarians support things that are good for the economy and for freedom, I mean it's just crazy! You would think they have a consistent belief system!

Hey, in the name of information, lets mandate the complete genetic code of every food in its label. That should really help consumers make good choices, right, I mean that's about as much information as you can get, isn't it?

Your penultimate paragraph deserves expanding further. There are huge negative externalities involved with overuse of antibiotics. Why are people so involved with stopping GM foods and not with limiting antibiotics? Which one creates more externalities?

That's sort of a red herring. I think many more people are concerned about the public health and environmental impacts of antibiotics, pesticides and fertilizers (organic agriculture concerns) than GMO. At least in the States, there's a lot of overlap between the two categories but I get the sense that many more people want organic food but don't much care whether it's GMO than the other way around. This is evidenced by the existence of organic produce, meat and dairy sections in many, many more American supermarkets than non-GMO sections.

I'm not afraid of GM foods at all, but I'd really like to know exactly what cultivar I'm buying whether it came to exist through new GM technology, traditional technology or natural variation/evolution. Why not provide the commercial name for the seed in every case and let folks look up how it came to be in their grocery if they're interested? If there was consumer demand for it, groceries could provide a kiosk that lets folks look up their produce choices or go ahead and label the produce at the retail level.

Obviously this only really works for produce. If there's consumer demand for GMO labeling, products containing mixtures of ingredients will probably start to (if they haven't already) advertise this fact on the packaging as you've seen with BPA in the last several years.

You do see this some with produce. The ugly ripe tomato is an example. Hass avacadoes as well. Those are the only ones off the top of my head. Fresh sweet corn is often brand marketed as well.

But yea, definitely impractical with cereal or bread. Dozens of cultivars bulked together to get the proper nutrient, protein ratios for the recipe.

Do any of the studies cited examine the impact of GM foods on the epigenome over a long time frame, up to multiple generations? That's my big question about GM food and one that never seems to get answered. The studies are generally short-term and focos on nutrition / poison and not on long-term, more insidious impacts. Of course, those are difficult to isolate, which is probably why I haven't seen it.

Nutrition science is still in the dark ages. We don't even know if the macronutrient content of the human diet has any effect on cardiovascular disease. Given the lack of even a basic understanding of the relationship between nutrition and health, do you think we know (or can know) whether any specific variety of GMO negatively affects health over multiple generations? Forget it. People who proclaim this stuff safe are doing so in the absence of any compelling evidence. It may be and there are reasons to think it is, but there is so much we do not know.

We don't know if the NON-GMO food is dangerous! The GMO food could just as easily be better for you than the non-GMO food, we have no reason to believe one way or the other, so why label? GMO is just a gibberish label, it is meaningless and has no informational content. It says literally nothing about the actual content of the food.

Genetically modified foods alter the genetics of the plant not your genetics. It impacts your personal body on the same level as all other food. To the extent that eating food impacts the epigenome over multiple generations, worry about that all you like, but realize your worry is about all forms of food, all forms of hybridization, and any food not eaten by your local genetic type for the last ten thousand years. Your logic applies equally well to a European or African eating bananas or corn.

The science of the epigenome is in its infancy. Although it doesn't alter genetics, it could alter the expression of the human genome, which is really all we should care about, since that is, in effect, the outcome:

As for the epigentic impacts of GM food vs. all food that was historically eaten by my direct ancestors, you have a point. However, I would consider foods eaten by other cultures for many many generations to be "lab tested". So I don't have any fears of eating coconuts or other tropical foods. Although mankind has modified plants through cultivation and hybridization for generations, these are slow, marginal changes bred into the plants from other plants in the same family while trying to breed for the desired trait. Never before have we introduced such dramatic changes (e.g., the most famous example of the Flounder gene sequence introduced into a tomato). That's new territory for man and agriculture. It has the same end goal, and the process of selecting for traits is comparable, but the actual process is quite different from anything in human history.

"Although mankind has modified plants through cultivation and hybridization for generations, these are slow, marginal changes bred into the plants from other plants in the same family while trying to breed for the desired trait"

Plant breeding was remarkable fast in it's infancy. Huge gene pools of unselected stock respond very quickly to artificial selection with very rapid changes to the plants. It is slow now due to plateauing.

Also, scientists now routinely transfer genes between modern, hexaploid wheat and it's diploid ancestral states using chemical chromosome doubling or creating synthetic double haploids. High failure rate. Highly successful in introgressing new traits.

And resulting varieties would not be considered GMO.

I agree with several of the bits in the post, but the take-aways just fly in from left field. Food fears pop up all the time and will continue to (I remember Alar apples as a kid)...cause people care about what they eat. Agriculture has been genetically modifying the food supply since the beginning of agriculture. The tools have changed, but the premise is the same...make more, better (variously defined) food. I have no problem eating GMO food, but I respect those who don't want to. Labeling here is a no-brainer. It should be standardized, factual, and brief but it should be there on the back of the box with all the other ingredients. No need to go wild with transparency, but there's almost none now and that's not good for the market to function properly. But the real zinger in the post was the re-direct to anti-biotics and animal cruelty at the end. You go after Bittman for no citations, but uh where's the links here? (I have views on this, but my sister-in-law who writes for FarmWorld has a good blog post on the issue: ) Information has to be exchanged for tough choices to be made...either by consumers, firms, or regulators.

The issue isn't whether it should be labelled - the USDA Organic standards already provide an effective "GMO-free" label - it is whether there should be an additional, mandatory labeling system.

Optional labels are basically marketing devices (even if they're standardized). Some of this issue is about market segmentation, but some of it is about health concerns. Required labeling would be more transparent and would give consumers better information to make their choices. Sure there are some misinformed food consumers. but keeping them in the dark on where their food comes from is not going to help that problem.

But that is the point. Food labeling initiatives are also just a marketing device, disguised as a "public's right to know." The point is there is ALREADY a completely adequate way to avoid GMO if you like. All you have to do is buy organic only. The money people behind the labeling initiatives are only trying to put a scarlet letter of warning on conventional foods, of which at least 90% already contain GMOs. What many proponents of GMO labeling (those not in the organic industry,at least) don't realize is that Prop 37 will most likely raise the price of ALL food if passed. Organic prices will rise as companies scramble to source what supply is available, driving the prices of organic up. If companies selling GMO-containing products decide to go with labeling, that will cause the prices of conventional food to increase to recover the added cost of labeling. If they choose to shift to organic sources, they will add to the demand for organic products, driving the price even higher. Farmers will be reluctant to give up their GMO crops, but there may be some switching over time. The net effect is that many nutritionally advanced GMO products may never make it to market. But if some do, and they become accepted, it will only go to show that the anti-GMO hype was just that, a big scare campaign. Eventually, GMOs will recover or return and the anti-GMO faction will have to be content that at least they cost Monsanto some money for a few years. But they will probably never admit all the hardship they have caused for millions of consumers.

Or it will be one of those farcically ubiquitous "May cause cancer in the state of California"-type labels.

Give the American consumer some credit here. Most people buy food on price...'buy organic' movement has not decimated (non-organic) food production, so I suspect GMO-free will stay niche too. If consumers want to know, then the info should be there for them. Of course, consumers will pay for this in higher food costs. I have no sympathy for inflammatory rhetoric/paternalism on either side of this debate...that's why more information would be welcome.

Sorry, I wasn't quite clear. My point was that if the labeling is mandatory the producer is going to have the choice to either (1) spend money to search through their supply chain to ensure their product is GMO-free and then they won't have to label their products, or (2) label everything as "May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering". The first option will result in the "more expensive food" scenario (without saving a single life or reducing the number of hospital visits by any measurable amount) and the second will result in the "farcically ubiquitous label" scenario.

If consumers want a pony, then the pony should be there for them.

Agree with you about labeling, Claudia, particularly as it applies to exported raw agricultural products which might otherwise be excluded from exporting unless you could assert they are non-GMO.

Labeling for processed goods which contain GMO might be another matter because food manufacturers can't have a GMO and non-GMO line based on ingredients that may constitute a small fraction of the manufactured products price.

So, for example, a candybar may contain GMO sugar from a GMO sugarbeet, but that shouldn't be the basis for labeling the candy bar as GMO or non-GMO for that matter. Where the value added, however, is a significant component of the finished good, as in BST-Free milk, you might have a different disclosure rule.

I agree with you that the costs of labeling may vary and there may not be a one-size-fits-all implementation. Also I am not trying to be flip about the costs involved with labeling, though I suspect this information is probably already available to large food producers (even of processed goods). I am concerned about the derision toward the GMO critics here (elsewhere in the comments). If GMO products are so harmless or so ubiquitous then why does this issue continue to be hotly debated? Telling me that people are being too emotional does not impress me...they're people. Making dinner for your family, going out for dinner to celebrate, or snacking from the frig are often emotional activities in part. Providing information about the food and making costs transparent can be a good way (but not the only way) to address misunderstandings. It's not a panacea, but I really don't like telling people others, oh don't worry I'm an expert, but it's too complicated for you to understand. I guess in the end I am arguing more of a procedural point than a substantive one.

Why not tell them if they want non-GMO foods they can go buy them?

"... then why does this issue continue to be hotly debated?"

Are you sincere in asking that? Because I'm certain that you've noticed the hordes of quasi-scienctific retards that shrilly caterwaul about GMO issues, AGW, vaccines, and a plethora of other topics that are demonstrably not legitimate concerns for the level of vitriol expended. What you are actually arguing about is your desire to ignore science and impose your ideological bias on everybody else. I sincerely hope that you fail.

Interesting economic question:

When agricultural products are traded internationally, if you don't label and are trying to export into countries less tolerant of GMO, what happens is that your product is or may be excluded. GMO becomes a trade barrier to all foods of that category, whether or not GMO is part of the shipment.

Similarly, food systems (storage, transportation, etc.) typically do not have the capacity to segregate GMO from non-GMO foods, so once GMO is introduced into the supply chain, the perception is that it is all GMO--the cost, then, is born by the non-GMO producer.

In some cases we have segregated production--non-BST milk, where there is actually a premium for non-BST milk.

So, two issues: 1) consumer choice and information; 2) tipping problems--if some GMO is admitted into a non-segretable system--the market tips towards GMO even though an individual producer might not choose GMO but because the category is now identified as GMO, he reluctantly joins.

The US food industry already engages in optional labeling. It's called "Organic" food, and in addition to restrictions on pesticides, etc. if you want to certify your food "Organic" then you must have your product tested for GMO or prove that your operation is GMO free.
I have a feeling that a mandatory labeling program would be much more expensive and ultimately ignored by most people. Consumers want cheaper food. By requiring everyone to test you drive up food prices. (Although, since I work in the GMO testing industry, I'm all for it!)

Its interesting to note that Bittman sometimes fills in for PK in the New York Times....somehow very fitting

What's wrong with the GMO farmers here? Rather than trying to avoid labelling, they should wear the label proudly. GMOs aren't just safe, they're superior, providing larger, heartier, more nutritious produce.

But instead of branding their products as superior, GMO farmers hang back in the shadows hoping that they don't get stuck with a spooky scarlet letter. Ocean Spray proved that farmers can improve their lot with effective branding, so why not take advantage of what is clearly a set of new and differentiated products, and capitalize on GMOs for what they are: BETTER?

Is this a serious argument? The qualities that make GMO products better primarily relate to the economics of farming. Put simply, GMO products are cheaper to produce. How do you turn that into a marketing campaign?

Part of the problem with GMO is that it is totally focussed on improving yields often at the expense of nutrition. The crummy GMO and non-GMO hybridized wheat that is now the most prominent staple of the American diet has lost almost all nutritional value aside from its being a source of energy. Pure cane sugar is as healthy an alternative.

"The crummy GMO and non-GMO hybridized wheat that is now the most prominent staple of the American diet has lost almost all nutritional value aside from its being a source of energy. Pure cane sugar is as healthy an alternative."

Care to provide some scientific evidence of this, and by that I don't mean Dr. "Wheat Belly", as he has no scientific evidence to back up his claims.

Yes, I would like a citation for a GMO wheat.

Hint, there is none. In the lab? Yes. Field? No. You have never consumed GMO wheat.

And modern wheat is devoid of nutritional value because of processing, not genetics. Pure, whole wheat seed is quite nutritious. White flour? Not so much. Problem is, most folks think whole wheat bread tastes bad. I only partially agree....

I didn't mean to suggest that GMO wheat was a staple of the American diet, but rather that high-yield (non-wheat) GMO and non-GMO hybridized wheat were staples that lacked the nutritional content of their originators. Sorry for the confusion. The above citation does establish that wheat has lost a lot of its nutritional content over the years. This has nothing whatsoever to do with processing.


Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years.
Fan MS, Zhao FJ, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Poulton PR, Dunham SJ, McGrath SP.

Recent publications using data from food composition tables indicate a downward trend in the mineral content of foods and it has been suggested that intensive farming practices may result in soil depletion of minerals. The aim of our study was to evaluate changes in the mineral concentration of wheat using a robust approach to establish whether trends are due to plant factors (e.g. cultivar, yield) or changes in soil nutrient concentration. The mineral concentration of archived wheat grain and soil samples from the Broadbalk Wheat Experiment (established in 1843 at Rothamsted, UK) was determined and trends over time examined in relation to cultivar, yield, and harvest index. The concentrations of zinc, iron, copper and magnesium remained stable between 1845 and the mid 1960s, but since then have decreased significantly, which coincided with the introduction of semi-dwarf, high-yielding cultivars. In comparison, the concentrations in soil have either increased or remained stable. Similarly decreasing trends were observed in different treatments receiving no fertilizers, inorganic fertilizers or organic manure. Multiple regression analysis showed that both increasing yield and harvest index were highly significant factors that explained the downward trend in grain mineral concentration.

I had not seen that citation before, but it is not surprising. As density is defined as a proportion to a total, and since the wheat seed has gotten quite a bit larger, especially since the semi-dwarf plants were introduced, it follows that the density of micro-nutrients would decrease. I expect the absolute quantity of micronutrients is the same, but they are diluted by the huge increases in starch and protein.

Unfortunately, the full text is gated even for me at a large ag research institution......Annoying.

But again, most of this is irrelevant since it only applies to whole wheat. What most people eat is white flour which is much worse. Vegetables is where this concern really crops up since they are often eaten unprocessed.

Here is a discussion of literature on various other edible plant species:

There is a lot of evidence that in our pursuit of high yields we have decreased nutrient density. Whether this is a bad thing on net is worth some thought, but it is one of the tradeoffs we have made.

@KLO Don't think you have me checkmated yet.

"Part of the problem with GMO is that it is totally focussed on improving yields often at the expense of nutrition. The crummy GMO and non-GMO hybridized wheat that is now the most prominent staple of the American diet has lost almost all nutritional value aside from its being a source of energy. Pure cane sugar is as healthy an alternative."

GMO traits to date have dealt more with the economics of production rather than yield. But you say the focus has been on yield. Some uninformed media have made that claim, but the main use of GM for the near future will remain maintaining yield.

Your link does nothing to support your claim that modern wheat is less nutritious. Less nutrient dense does not mean there is any less nutrition per grain or plant, only that the nutrient density has been diluted by the extra starch and protein that contribute to the higher yield of modern varieties. In third world countries, where the Green Revolution has had most effect, caloric content is every bit as important as mineral and vitamin content when it means avoiding starvation. India would not be able to feed its people if not for the Green Revolution. Of course they wouldn't even be considering Bt cotton production there either, because they would have to devote all their land to food crops.

As for your claim that sugar cane is as healthy as wheat, I can only assume you were exaggerating, as that statement is ludicrous at face value.

The campaign against GMOs is a campaign against Monsanto. If Monsanto were not the primary name associated with GMOs this campaign would not have nearly the same level of support. To paraphrase Tyler, I would in fact be more supportive of your argument if renowned economics bloggers such as yourself would come out and boldly defend Monsanto, their political influence, and their abuse of patent law.

So how about a "Monsanto" or "non-Monsanto" labeling requirement? Don't people have a RIGHT to know?

How about a label that says

"contains GM ingredients. The balance of scientific evidence suggests that GM food is safe for human consumption.
See for more information"

That way people could be informed about GM without the implication that they are riskier than non-GM foods.

While I agree that GMO foods are awesome (and that Monsanto is pretty terrible), if I as a consumer want to avoid GMO foods because I'm crazy, how do I determine that? Especially if I want non-organic non-GMO foods (hah!). Sounds like it would increase consumer knowledge and utility, right...?

At what cost?

I have no vested interest either way, but I have often wondered what it would look like if one were to take all claims made about Monsanto and drop them into buckets of Completely Unsupported, Evidence is Mixed, and Fully Supported.

There is the issue of the safety of GMOs, and there is the issue of the power of agribusiness. GMOs are rather safe (most people use even GMOs to vaccinate their kids). How safe is it to leave GMOs in the hands of the oligopoly of agribusiness? Not very safe. Everything could happen. GMO seed gives an enormous monopoly to the fir, producing it.

The worst is that the public sector have a very hard ti,e to invest in GMOs, leaving the field and all the patents to only a handfull of firms. This leads also to less GMOs for the crops of the poor, as there is no money in it.

So wait about 17 years and now the patented seeds are free. In the meantime, you have the non-patented seeds which everyone seems to want anyway?

The NGOs have been fighting the wrong enemy: they should fight concentration in the agribusiness sector, plead for environmental and safety regulation of GMOs and other innovations in agriculture (like the use of antibiotics in animal feed). They should argue for publicly funded research in GMOs directed to less commercial but better outcomes for the public and the poor, and open sourcing of the publicly funded innovation, instead of letting the fruits be patented by firms.

Instead they attack only the instrument that is Genetic manipulation, making all other practices acceptable, because not in the spotlight.

Tyler opposes choice? Now that's a surprise!

Why not just give consumers the option to choose GM-free products. As GM foods are so much more efficient they are going to be quite a bit cheaper. In all likelihood that will convince the typical consumer to move over to the GM foods over time.

They already have that option

yep - just look for the "USDA Organic" label.

Now they can only buy organic products which are even more expensive than just non-GM ones. What if people are willing to pay for non-GM but not for organic on top of that?

what's wrong with labeling?

i know science is the new religion now, and we want to avoid anything that smacks of anti-science, but still, what's wrong with labels?

Science is not the new religion, Science does not rely on revelation or divine instruction to learn new fact, it uses sound methodology to uncover empirical evidence that can be repeated and proven. That you chose to open your comment with that snide remark indicates your bias and inability to fairly judge the discussion.

Nevertheless, I inform you why the labels are bad. The problem lies in the methodology and reliance on appeals to emotion. The statute is poorly written and by using the CA proposition system, the proponents are able to avoid scrutiny. The proposition includes deliberate misstatements of scientific fact with the intent to deceive and influence. For that reason alone, it should be voted down.

Someone who understands the issue wrote the definitive rebuttal to the proposition:

My take is that if the lefty environmental lunatics are trying to make the government force someone to do something then it is wrong

Labeling should transmit the right kind of information. Relevant information. If it transmits irrelevant information, it crowds out the choice on basis of the preferred issues.

GMO is a production method, not a result, nor an impact.

If we are interested in how healthy a food is, we should have labels with information on the direct effects on our own health (pesticides in the food is relevant here use of antibiotics or hormones may be, freshness too; it seems organic or not is increasingly irrelevant).

If we are interested in the impact on the environment a lot of other measures are relevant: the use of antibiotics; the carbon content; the water use; the tilling method (herbicides + no tilling is better than tilling without herbicides); the use of environmentally damaging chemicals or even fertilizer, organic or not.

If we are interested in the impact on society, we can look at the labour relations, the alienation caused by the production method, the impact on the local community.

If we stare at the GMO side, we don' t look at any other measure.

Cowen hits the nail on the head with this one. I think the real issue is what retailers will do if and when the Prop 37 passes:

There would be no concerns over labeling if the costs of labeling were insignificant and if labels were to clearly denote that the required notice in no way implied any scientific evidence of any sort that the distinction is significant.

Can I pick any arbitrary characteristic I want on a label - the presence of a certain isomer maybe or if people picked the corn with their left vs. right hands and turn that into a label mandate?
Is Your Corn Left Handed? Why do They oppose consumer information? What are They hiding?

I still don't get where the "controversy" over GMO is coming from. I know it's a greenpeace thing, but who takes them seriously these days? When was the last time greenpeace based their opinions on scientific research and not on dogma? In the 80s?
Anyways GMO is as old as agriculture everything that has ever grown on fields or in green houses etc has been genetically modified - thousands of years ago.
Cows, pigs, dogs and horses are all genetically modified animals.

Modern GMO differs from cultivation in that the people who do it these make only precise, delibarate and minor changes in the genes of oganisms.

What's the difference between eating corn that has one gene from a fish and eating normal corn and the fish separately? I eat fish genes all the time and I haven't turned into a fish (yet).

"I would in fact be more supportive of the GMO labeling idea if renowned food writers such as Bittman, and many others including left-wing economists, would come out and boldly proclaim the science about GMOs to their readers."

I specifically checked the Cowen food blog for a GMO tag to find a Cowen proclamation that GMO foods demonstrated their higher patent monopoly prices in the highly tasty and innovative dishes at the high volume high tech diner chain that was using economies of scale and food engineering to deliver delightful foods. I couldn't find any such praise of GMOs, or high volume mass produced commodity food protected in by patents to reap high profits, for that matter.

In Freakonomics broadcast this past weekend, Cowen and others were engaged in a discussion of organic and local production, and basically, in the 54 minutes of talk about food, the question of taste was not mentioned seriously.

Tomatoes have been engineered by traditional plant breeding for mass production so the can be grown in Florida sand from the chemicals applied to green apples that can be picked just mature enough that they can be picked and dumped in one ton boxes for transport and sorting, from which they are packed in high ethylene chambers to cause them to redden and soften to be put on supermarket shelves one to two thousand miles away. But these tomatoes are tasteless, so GMO engineering is being used to insert a patented gene to supposedly restore tomato taste under the Flavrsavr brand label - this has so far been a marketing failure, and thus growers aren't using the GMO seed because the higher cost has no benefit to anyone but the patent holder.

The "taste" of tomatoes and most other food comes more from the soil, even in meat, than in the genes, so GMO will not produce food that tastes good because good taste is too expensive.

In your own post, you mentioned that the market was working - people taste the tomato, don't like it, and buy something else. You can't label taste.

Of course, farmers compete on taste all the time. 'AAA Alberta Beef' is a marketing slogan, but it's also information to the consumer. If Alberta Beef doesn't taste good, or doesn't taste better than any other kind of beef, the label will soon lose market power. Just like the 'flavr savr' tomato, if what you say is right. No government intervention required.

Why is a libertarian so against information? Face it, this is a fraud being perpetrated on the American people on behalf of food companies; it's all about profits. As for citing government regulatory body findings, maybe a class on the meaning of "regulatory capture" would be beneficial for Professor Cowen.

Libertarians aren't against information - they're against the government using force to demand that manufacturers put labels on things. More specifically, for a libertarian to support a labeling standard, he or she would have to be shown that there is some kind of hidden defect or flaw in the product that consumers need to know about to make an informed choice.

In this case, what is the defect? Note that we're talking about something that matters to the consumer, and not to 'fair trade' activists or anti-corporate 'small is better' leftists.

Explain the scientific evidence for risks or flaws in GMO foods that the consumer needs to be aware of, and which shouldn't be left to the choice of the consumer. Taste, for example, is off limits because people can easily discover which foods they prefer to eat.

The other issue here is that we're not really talking about 'information'. We're talking about one industry trying to get another industry's products labeled to create a perception that there is something wrong with the product. From the consumer's standpoint, if GMO manufacturing methods are irrelevent to the quality of the product, why does there need to be a label? So the mere presence of a label indicates that the government thinks this is something people need to be aware of, which implies either a flawed product or a lesser product.

"...maybe a class on the meaning of “regulatory capture” would be beneficial for Professor Cowen."

I'm very sure Tyler understands what regulatory capture is. You, on the other hand, may not. Just what would you call it when lobbyists for small farms and Greenpeace fight to have the government put labels on products that benefit those farms and hurt the competition? Or is it your opinion that regulatory capture is only something the other side engages in?

For me, I think every General Motors car should come with a big windshield sticker that says, "Warning: The manufacture of this car was subsidized with taxpayer dollars and assembled by union labor that used the hand of government to screw over bond holders in favor of their own salaries and benefits. Purchasing this vehicle will encourage more of this behavior in the future."

Or maybe we could just leave ideology out of labeling standards.

To a large degree, indeed. But this does not relate to the technology, only to the companies. Much of the basic research on GMOs happened with public money, but the patents are privatized. The problem are not the GMOs, it is the power of the food companies. By aiming at the technology, the companies and production methods themselves are not tackled. Greenpeace does not care about society, only about their battle horses.

As someone who volunteers for the CaRighttoknow campaign, I can attest that it is grassroots and not one particular party over another. There are many different points of view from conservative to liberal to radical. The only consensus is that GMO's are not good and it seems everyone has a different reason why. As for the article, I find it interesting that there the "most careful study" quote is a research paper from a biotech funded group. As for the health risks, anyone who has taken time to actually study the documents will realize that most documented testing is funded by biotch. There are minimal independent tests done as Monsanto won't allow its seed to be tested by independent researchers due to "patent violation" potential. FDA won't say anything because they are Monsanto. Many of the high ranking positions there are held by Monsanto "ex" executives including the current food czar. I could go on and on but I've found most people think what they have decided is their own truth and they're sticking to it. So go ahead and eat GMO food, no one is stopping you. I'd just like a little clarity on what is altered and what isn't, so I can avoid it. Knowledge is power.

Tyler Cowen. is a libertarian economist. Need I say more?
Monsanto owns the Fed, that's not gonna change. Monsanto is running scared that labeling will succeed. That will hit their bottom line so hard that the Wall St marketmakers will short MON. Only at that point will lawmakers consult with their stockbrokers and pass laws restricting GMOs. They'll make a fortune as Monsanto's stock sinks like Enron. That's our modern kleptocracy in action.

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