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Winning the Popular Vote: GM Labelling Advocates and Public Support in the EU and US

his is a guest post from the BiotechBlog Intern,  Fintan Burke. Fintan is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. Do you have a response to Fintan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

For environmentalists, one standout moment in President Obama’s re-election speech was his brief mention of a country not “threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet”, a subject noticeably absent during the presidential debates. Election Day also offered some disappointment, however. California’s proposition 37, calling for the mandatory labelling of Genetically Modified (GM) foods, was defeated. While the defeat in such a progressive state was surprising it also emphasised the little progress made in this area since Obama’s campaign promise to label GM food in 2007.

This promise certainly reflected popular opinion at the time. As far back as 2001, an ABC poll showed 93% of the American public in favour of GM labelling, a figure maintained to the present day. GM labelling advocacy groups such as Just Label It were keen to put the main arguments forward during the proposition 37 debate:

  • Herbicide resistant GM crops encourages the increased use of herbicides in farms. This practice has caused ecological damage through runoff, with new “superweed” breeds causing even more aggressive herbicide use.
  • The rising popularity of organic food in the western world has increased demand for clear labelling for both organic and GM food.
  • Ethical concerns also arise in consuming GM foods, e.g. for vegetarians or for religious reasons.

Why then the defeat in California? Stacy Malkan, media director of the Yes to 37 campaign, notes the disparity between the Yes and No campaign funds, a significant portion of which came from biotech firm Monsanto. Alongside financial contributions, this world-leading biotech seed producer has a history of defending itself against GM labels through lawsuits. Monsanto are not above persecuting voluntary labelling either, as is the case when they challenged the ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s practice of making their dairy farmers ensure their cows were hormone supplement free.

Other labelling opponents often offer other reasons:

  • The US consumer attitude is indifferent to GM foods. There is no instance of a GM free product cornering its market. The logistics or expense in labelling some foods GM or otherwise isn’t financially justifiable.
  • There has been no significant difference found between GM foods and conventionally grown foods, in terms of health or otherwise. Any health concerns would need to be labelled by law anyway.
  • The increased cost in GM labelling would mean loss of national and international competitiveness. It could also be seen as unfair for those who are indifferent to labelling to pay the higher price.

Interestingly, Monsanto is more affirmative to European GM labelling. In 1997 the company ran several advertisements in the UK in support of food transparency, though this may have been to save face; that year also saw the introduction of new European Commission regulation that called for mandatory GM labelling. The new regulations prompted an official White House complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) arguing a potential $250m loss in exports due to overly strict criteria. The WTO ruled the EU must relax its importing criteria, though by 2010 controversy among US farmer groups about the EU’s attitude remained.

Such strict attitude has often been blamed as trade protectionism, though there is a fundamental difference in approach among the EU members to GM food. A 2005 study saw only 20% of the EU public in support of GM foods. In an attempt to explain this Ceccoli and Hixon carried out an extensive survey this year. They found that scientific literacy tends to make people more accepting of GM food, though public sentiment still sways toward the EU ensuring consumer protection. The report notes that many farms in the EU, particularly France and Italy, are small and use traditional organic methods. Introducing cheaper GM crops to the larger farms can therefore cause equity worries as smaller farms lose what competitiveness they had. Another idea put forward is distrust among the EU’s public after a history of poorly handled contamination disasters (such as the BSE epidemic).

The main difference between the US and EU then is one of indifference versus aversion to GM labelling, reflected in their individual legislations. Given the amount of expenditure (not to mention partisan papers) on the Prop 37 campaign already, it appears that both sides know all too well that any GM labelling law may ultimately be passed by who it influences the most; the consumer. Though proposition 37 failed, Obama’s re-election is seen as a benefit for pro labelling in America, with the publicity generated by proposition 37 widening public awareness. Meanwhile, Europe has taken great pride in its organic-focused agriculture with the implementation of the GM free “Euro-Leaf”. Whether GM labelling can work an American charm offensive remains to be seen.

About the author:

Fintan Burke is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. His main fields of interest include biomedical therapies and recombinant organisms.  Fintan may be contacted at fintan.burke2@mail.dcu.ie .

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