GMO Food Is Actually Already Labeled If You Know A Few Rules

Back in 1995, I was party to some discussions about whether about-to-be-released GMO crops should be labeled at the consumer level.  It was clear that a failure to do so would look to some like a conspiracy, but we also realized that it would be far too expensive to track the great rivers of grain well enough to be able to label everything accurately.   Practicality won the day and GMO foods were never labeled.  15 years later this decision is still being needlessly debated.

Why You Can’t Really Track All Grain

It does not normally make sense for a farmer to have his/her own harvesting equipment.  There are “custom, contract harvesters” who move from South to North during the harvest season.  There are always some grains left in the harvester as it moves from field to field.  The grain is then hauled to local “elevators” which are used to store grain.  They only have a few silos which end up containing grain from dozens to hundreds of fields.  Segregating the GMO portion of the crop is not possible at this stage.   To ask this system to segregate and track GMO is absurd.  It is much more practical to “identity preserve” the small amount of non-GMO crop.  That also usually involves paying a price premium.

A “May Contain” Label Might Have Been A Better Choice

I actually supported the idea of a “may contain GMO” label, recognizing that things like corn and soybeans are turned into ingredients that are in just about any processed food (corn starch, HFCS, soy protein, soybean oil…).  Both the biotech industry and the food industry thought that a “may contain” label would unnecessarily frighten consumers.  I still think it would have inoculated them against alarm.  In the Information Age, only the absence of information stands out.

Fruits and Vegetables

As I have written elsewhere, almost no fruit or vegetable crops will ever be GMO – not because of consumer wishes, but because of economics, brand protectionism, and alternative ways of achieving the same goals.  If GMO ever did move to fruit and vegetable crops, it would probably be intentionally labeled and farmers would then segregate the GMO from the non-GMO.  For instance, if there was a line of coffee with a trait that allowed intentional timing of flowering (and thus timing of harvest), it would be much cheaper because it could be mechanically harvested (this is actually needed, or coffee is going to become extremely expensive in the future).  A label could explain this.  If there was a new variety of potato with higher starch content, it would absorb less fat during cooking.  It could be proudly advertised as a “low fat” option at a fast food chain (there was such a potato in the works before McDonald’s killed the program).

The “Biotech By Choice” Brand Concept

There is the concept of an umbrella brand for these sorts of GMO innovations – “Biotech By Choice”  (I even once reserved the domain name for that). The GMO,Bt sweet corn, that already exists (quietly) should be the first product under that brand – if there ever was a grocery retailer with the guts to promote it.  Instead, they quietly tell their suppliers not to bring them any GMO corn.  The second product under the brand could be the GMO virus resistant papaya (which saved the Hawaiian papaya industry a few years ago). Instead it is being sold on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis.

Biotech Wine

A third product under the Biotech By Choice brand could be premium wine grown on virus and nematode resistant rootstock.  I once advised the folks in Chile, that own this Cornell-developed technology, to buy some previously ideal vineyard sites in Napa and France that are now worthless because they are contaminated with the nematode and virus which kill any grape you plant there.  They could buy that land cheaply, grow some really good grapes, and make a premium wine.  There are plenty of people who would subscribe ahead of time to be able to buy a case a year at a wholesale price.  Did that happen?  No. People with fears of genetic contamination (which shows that they know nothing about grapes)ripped the French version of that experiment out of the ground.  The US experiment still exists, but only because its location is secret.  Still, this technology will probably never reach the market (do you have a couple million spare bucks to help finish the work?).

A Biotech Crop to Feed the World

A fourth Biotech by Choice crop could be wheat.  It might be drought tolerant or efficient in its use of nitrogen.  It might be resistant to a herbicide so that specific varieties can be grown purely under a no-till system.  It might be resistant to Fusarium, a fungus, and thus free of the mycotoxin, DON or vomitoxin.  I’d like to be able to choose a loaf like that.  Wheat actually could be segregated into GMO and non-GMO.  Most wheat farmers have their own, on-farm grain storage facilities. Wheat quality is variable by variety, geography and year, so there is a lot of testing and movement of small lots.  If there were reasonable rules about “adventitious presence,” (e.g. a few kernals of GMO in the non-GMO because they were harvested with the same harvester). Then Biotech By Choice wheat products could be sold.  Will that happen?  Its hard to know.  The wheat farmers certainly hope so.

All Food Is Effectively Labeled if You Know A Few Rules

Most people would like GMO products to be labeled.  I get that.  But, if you know a few rules, they already are in a de-facto mode.  For the grain crops, other than wheat, it just isn’t practical to segregate, and it makes far more sense to label only what is non-GMO.  We do that and should. Just assume the rest contains GMOs. It is like buying eggs: they all contain cholesterol, but there is no need to say so on the label except for the “whites only” variety and no one would mistake the little boxes for eggs.

For fruits and vegetables it would make sense to proudly label the improved, GMO versions.  If they are not promoted that way, just assume they are non-GMO because that is the norm. This is comparable to the reason you don’t have to label lettuce or water that is “fat free.” If you don’t want GMO, don’t buy papaya’s from Hawaii.  You could also avoid squash, but I don’t think it is GMO anymore.

For wheat products, actual labeling will be feasible as long as people accept reasonable thresholds for adventitious presence. For now, just know that there is no GMO wheat being grown commercially, so there is no need to label anything (although most wheat products will have some soy or corn ingredients as well).

Conclusion

In my world, this all makes perfect sense.  I hope this helps.  If you don’t worry about GMOs, there is no need for labels.  If you have worries, it is easy to avoid GMO.  However, I’m under no delusion that activists will adopt such a view.  There is way too much money to be made in the fear business.

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 6/23/11)

My email is savage.sd@gmail.com.  My website is Applied Mythology. GMO label Image from Food Freedom website.

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His speaking websiet is :"His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc

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34 comments on “GMO Food Is Actually Already Labeled If You Know A Few Rules
  1. Andrew Apel says:

    The issues regarding labeling is largely a matter of practicality in the US. Elsewhere things are much different. And though we are debating labeling 15 years later, the debate continues — but not ‘needlessly’ debated.

    There are vast sums of profits to be made by tracking and labeling the harvests of GM crops. These profits are opportunistic, but are just as substantial as if there were demonstrable problems with the crops involved. So long as consumer fears are stoked by activists and others, the debate will continue to generate revenues along the supply chain.

    So there are a number of practical approaches available to those who can monetize or politicize ‘the debate’ — and all of those business models rely on extending the debate as long as possible, to ensure the revenue stream is reliable.

    If I may be so bold, I would recommend to you the paper, ‘The costly benefits of opposing agricultural biotechnology’, New Biotechnology, Volume 27, Number 5, November 2010. doi:10.1016/j.nbt.2010.05.006

  2. Joaquin Delanuit says:

    Another naîve expose along the line: “When we build it, they will come./When we develop it, they will eat it.”

    Ever told your kid when inquiring about a meal, to just eat it? Didn’t work out so well, did it? That’s what the GMO industry tells the consumer effectively. Humans don’t work that way. Anthropologists and psychologists can easily explain why this instinctive reaction helped us to survive through the ages. Same reason why we buy an over processed, chemically contaminated, artificially colored and sweetened piece of peach but with a wholesome illustration on the label.

    In the absence of a very, very expensive educational consumer campaign to explain GMOs, the consumer will always reject GMO products out of pure instinct. The sneaky lobbying of the GMO industry not to have to label their products will backfire because consumers fall for conspiracies in the absence of easy available advertising. Yet the GMO industry rather sees conspiracies themselves, where they actually have a disastrous marketing problem.

    • Eric Baumholder says:

      Joaquin,

      Excellent point. I truly enjoyed your honesty in acknowledging that your approach to GM crops is childish.

      • Tsk tsk… Be nice. Comments like this cut off discussion, and make someone not want to come back to this blog.

        • Eric Baumholder says:

          Is there a double standard in ‘the debate’? Must we abstain from polemic, while they need not? Agro biotech has for the last 14 years at least has suffered badly from the attitude that it is impolite to directly engage with, and contradict, its shrill detractors. Retreating from every assault sends the wrong message to consumers and others.

          • LorenE says:

            “I want you to be nice…until it’s time not to be nice.” Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse. I’m with Eric on this one. We’ve tried ‘nice’ for the last 15 years. What we got for our trouble was people peddling bad science, a bizarre interpretation of the precautionary principle and the idea that you can kill biotech at the ballot box instead of the marketplace. Anti-GM types basically accuse those of us who make a modest living doing decent science of being unethical (and that’s a ‘nice’ interpretation)

    • Jonathan says:

      “In the absence of a very, very expensive educational consumer campaign to explain GMOs, the consumer will always reject GMO products out of pure instinct”

      Two points:
      1) Any very very expensive educational consumer campaign won’t work because people like you are already 100% wary of anything that is presented by the biotech industry, especially PR. You put the industry in a no win situation. They can’t educate because you accuse them of conspiracy. If they don’t educate you say they are a failure.

      2) You say the consumer will always reject GMO, however 99% of consumers are already eating GMO on a daily basis whatever your opinion of that issue. Many don’t care (more than your average anti-GM propaganda website would have you believe). Fifteen years or so down the line there is no evidence it is affecting the incidence of any disease or health problem in consumers. In 50 or 100 years time if it is still clear it isn’t causing anyone any harm that acceptance will become more widespread.

      • Eric Baumholder says:

        A few years ago (perhaps a dozen), someone conducted a survey and found that about 60 percent of consumers were against breeding hybrid crops, saying the process was ‘unnatural’.

        The average consumer knows next to nothing about food production, which is why we have government agencies to do the thinking for them.

  3. Mary Ostlund says:

    Whether it’s GMO or not, it’s on the label. Knowing what the produce number starts with can tell you if it’s organic, GMO’d or not. Here’s a link to the information on how to tell

    http://brookstropicals.blogspot.com/2009/12/easy-way-to-tell-if-produce-is.html

  4. OrchidGrowinMan says:

    I like all the labels on vegetables and such that say “cholesterol FREE!” and it’s amusing to see the products that advertise themselves as FREE! of wheat, corn, soy, dairy, salt, sodium, sugar, HCFS, MSG (really?), etc. Not that there aren’t some valid reasons for some people to avoid some constituents (phenylalanine comes to mind), but it’s obvious that the idea is to use the label to imply that there is something especially Bad about whatever it mentions, and that competitors’ products have the Bad thing, so you should buy this one that proudly announces that the manufacturer cares about you and has gone to the trouble of making sure there isn’t any of the Bad thing in their product. Really, the consumer’s reaction is pretty reasonable: there ARE some things that are justifiably or mandatorially so-mentioned on the labels, bad things, and how is he to know the difference? I wonder if this applies to “bean-free chili? XKCD puts this into a simple cartoon: http://xkcd.com/641/ .

  5. Joaquin Delanuit says:

    Science is not the enemy and backyard food production is not an answer either. Organic farms ignoring i.e. e-coli procedures are a growing concern. This is not a battle of science vs. activism, but a marketing issue. You may call it ‘childish’ but you better sit in some focus groups to understand why simplifications of a complicated topic are needed. Running a corporation in the hope of cornering food production and purely securing it by lobbying politicians is shoddy marketing. Then sending scientists into the pits to hash it out on ethical principles with political activists is lunacy.

    Never underestimate the customer. Never underestimate the power of their pocket book. As corporate scientists (or scientist in universities sponsored by corporations) you lost the academic comfort zone. You may get a bigger car, a shinier lab but you’re exposed to a brutal world unknown to you. The ever shifting finicky deceitful retail universe, full with human fears, needs and desires, driven by anonymous corporations. Where the PR department handles ethical concerns and anonymous shareholders elect the boards.

    $750 mil settlement of BAYER with U.S. rice farmers for GMO contamination announced today: Do you have any idea what this does to the wholesale buyers of rice in those regions? To how the wholesale food factories shift their storing, buying habits? To supermarket chain buyers of how they stock rice products? And that’s just damage control. The purchase for next quarter will be adjusted preemptively, and people will lose jobs and funding and income all along the supply chain. Welcome to the new world of retail food, goodbye to the academic freedom of science.

    BioTech has to understand consumer psychology as much as the genetic traits of an organism to succeed. And no, Mary, consumers don’t try to decipher numbers on a label. And yes, Eric, they think childish. And no, Jonathan, they don’t care what folks in 100 years will think. LorenE, not being nice to customers will not get you anywhere. Thank you Karl, but I enjoy talking to smart people even if they are angry and feel wronged.

    I could give you a few arguments to take apart your opponents, but that would go too far. Better to find them for yourself in the new marketing world.

  6. walt willis says:

    Hybird and GMO are NOT the same thing! That is not what I worry about.

  7. Jamie says:

    GMOs have been found to be very dangerous, and the evidence is everywhere…except in the boardrooms, apparently. Many companies are just trying to make the highest buck, with the most minute amount of nutrition. Money. Ugh…and if it’s actually GOOD for us, then they charge so much, we can barely afford to eat it!

  8. eva says:

    We are not trying to stop biotech, we are wanting to be able to make our own decisions about what we buy. I will be honest that I do not trust a “scientist” that produces or manufactures a new altered food chain for profit. I also don’t like that honorable hard working families are being sued, bullied, harassed etc., because the bees from the neighboring GMO crop pollinated on their land. Are we making the USA a third world country at the hands of these (now a person) corporations. Frankly I am tired of funding their 4th & 5th homes.

    • There has not been a single case presented where a farmer has been sued for accidental cross-pollination. I understand that you wish to avoid purchasing them, but are you unable to do so with the choices currently available from companies that actively avoid GMOs and label themselves as such?

    • Ewan R says:

      “I also don’t like that honorable hard working families are being sued, bullied, harassed etc., because the bees from the neighboring GMO crop pollinated on their land.”

      I get that you’d be angry about this.

      Do you feel a similar level of anger that you have been straight up lied to by groups and individuals about this topic? They’ve literally driven you to be frustrated and angered by a fiction. They’ve invented a reality that suits their desires by engineering a reaction from you based on a falsehood. That’d really, really upset me.

  9. eva says:

    I saw a documentary called Food Inc. Was that all a hoax? You know that there was a case that went to the Supreme Court? Right? What happened there? I don’t believe your claim of no lawsuit. Who do you do your science for? Hmmmmm.

    • Steve Savage says:

      Eva, Food Inc was full of misleading information. Yes there was a case that went to the Supreme Court. The justices were unanimous (something rare for that body) in their decision against the organic groups that brought the suit. Reason? They couldn’t cite any instances of actual harm. Farmers were sued when then explicitly violated terms of the license agreement – not for any accidental pollen drift. I have “done my science” for many different employers over the years, but our goal was always to do something for the benefit of farmers. They were our customers so that is what mattered. Oh, by the way, they do feed people.

      • eva says:

        My apologies for seeming condescending, but you did have to back track regarding your blanket statement that there were no lawsuits. And also you quoted my poor articulation of “who you do you science for”. Who’s condescending? My point is that the average person is frustrated because they are being forced in the market place to buy food that they did not ok to be genetically engineered. You will say they are not forced, but your point is semantic when you know that the main produce isle is GMO’d and the product is cheaper than the natural, organic, non-subsidized food. Your blessing to be educated and present yourself as a high minded person does not address this frustration.

        • Steve Savage says:

          Eva,
          No food is or has ever been “oked” by consumers. Virtually all foods have been changed genetically over time, but none of that change was ever regulated in any way until genetic engineering came along. The scientific, regulatory and industry worked together for more than a decade before any of it was commercialized to put into place a system of approvals by USDA, EPA and FDA so that the public would not need to be concerned. All of this was going on in public meetings. I can’t imagine how much more careful anyone could have been.

          The organic food you can buy is more expensive for many reasons. The farmers generally get lower yields because they have fewer pesticide options (they do use pesticides). They generally get paid somewhat more per pound, but all the players in the chain also take a premium. For the grocery store some of that is justified because they end up throwing away quite a bit more of their organic produce because it tends to decay because of pest injury in the field. None of the conventional produce is subsidized either, and almost none of the fruits or vegetables are GMO anyway because in the few cases where they could have been the retailers have quietly told their suppliers they don’t want it (e.g. sweet corn).

          Organic options for processed foods are more expensive, partially because of the same low yield issue, but also because organic requires “chain of custody” which means that starting with the harvester, the grain storage, the trucking etc it has to be handled separately. This leads to inefficiencies that cost more. Its not really that much more, but lots of organic processed food producers have shifted to getting ingredients (grains, flours, fruit juice concentrates, dried milk products…) from places like China and India. That, to me, is scary because even if it is really grown under organic rules (which many hard core organic advocates doubt), it is grown in a place with polluted air, water and soil – with things like heavy metals and old pesticides that have been banned here for decades.

          My whole point with this post was that even if there is no reason to be concerned about GMOs, all one has to do is not eat processed foods – something a great many Americans could stand to do less of anyway. There are literally hundreds of choices in the produce isle that will never be GMO, mostly for economic reasons. Potatoes, dry beans, rice, quinoa, wheat are not currently GMO and you will certainly know if such things are ever are.

          In the mean time, at least some of our farmers are getting to grow crops with certain traits that they find very valuable for productivity and risk management

          • Eva says:

            I and my family and my friends do not eat processed food and as much as we can we do not eat GMO food. We love the farmers markets locally. Thank you for your time and information. As far as the fiction you claim the other side is stating that becomes a “you said they said” game. The draw back that your side has is that you are supported by big money. I just want us all to work honorably for good health and for the good of our fellow human beings. I am seeing too much is not enough in all of the corporations where even in the down turn while most of Americans struggled the corporations still reported profits. Not liking monetary gain blinding the effects of non natural food practices.

            • Ewan R says:

              It really isn’t he said she said though.

              Court documents exist. You can claim that Monsanto has unfairly sued someone, but when you have the court documents on hand with sworn testimony from both sides (with neither side particularly wanting to perjure themselves) plus judicial summation of the evidence… it isn’t he said she said – it boils down more to… hey, look at what is claimed outside of court, and in court, by both sides – why is it (and here I’m going to use Schmeiser as the example, because he is probably the most famous case that still pops up all the time) that if one compares what was said outside court on both sides, and what was said in court by both sides, that Schmeiser’s story changes but Monsanto’s story stays the same – who, really, is guilty of spin in this case?

            • Eva, you said:

              The draw back that your side has is that you are supported by big money.

              Be careful when you say that here. While there are some who comment here who work for the biotech industry (and some who work for other industries like Organic), Biology Fortified is not in any way funded by the biotech industry. I just want to clarify that.
              As a general point for polite conversation, it is not a good idea to accuse people you are arguing with of being bought out or influenced by money to hold the opinions that they express. It opens up the question of your financial interest as well. We strive for a genuine conversation here, so playing the “shill” card, as it is known, has no place here. Please read our comment policy, which explains this.

              I just want us all to work honorably for good health and for the good of our fellow human beings.

              I think you will find many people here who will agree with this statement.

    • Eva, try not to be so condescending if you are looking for conversation. Please see our comment policy page, accessible from the menu bar on the top.

      • Eva says:

        My apologies for seeming condescending, but you did have to back track regarding your blanket statement that there were no lawsuits. And also you quoted my poor articulation of “who you do you science for”. Who’s condescending? My point is that the average person is frustrated because they are being forced in the market place to buy food that they did not ok to be genetically engineered. You will say they are not forced, but your point is semantic when you know that the main produce isle is GMO’d and the product is cheaper than the natural, organic, non-subsidized food. Your blessing to be educated and present yourself as a high minded person does not address this frustration.

        • The Bug Guy says:

          There was no back-tracking. Karl was correct that there have been no lawsuits for accidental cross-pollination. The lawsuits that are on record found that the defendants knowingly violated user agreements involving traited seeds. Some of us find it amusing that gmo opponents hold these people up as heroes when they were intentionally using the gmo traits that the opponents so despise. Or, in the case of OSGATA v. Monsanto, the lawsuit was brought by OSGATA, not Monsanto. That case was dismissed because the plaintiffs were unable to demonstrate a single case of Monsanto suing for accidental cross-pollination.

          • Indeed, the judge who dismissed the OSGATA case was quite clear in saying that the group that brought the case were engaging in courtroom theater. The case was appealed, and the Federal judge then said, essentially:
            Monsanto – you say you will not sue over cross-pollination? (Yes)
            Then I rule that you cannot! (Set to less than 1% of field)
            Organic and non-GMO farmers – you say you don’t want Monsanto’s crops to pollinate your farms? (Yes)
            Then I rule that you shall take appropriate measures to ensure the identity of your premium crops!

            The appeal to the Supreme Court by the plaintiffs was denied. As it stands, Monsanto is legally barred from suing over cross-pollination. The anti-GMO groups haven’t promoted this outcome very widely, because it runs against their narrative.

        • Most of the produce aisle is not genetically engineered. It seems that you are upset over subsidies, which is a separate issue altogether. Subsidies make sure that farmers can continue to produce, despite price fluctuations and depressions. It is not the reason why organic food is expensive.

          • Charles Rader says:

            Can somebody clarify for me this issue of subsidies? I keep reading, from the advocates of organic food, that one of the reasons it is more expensive than other food (on average) is that the other food is subsidized. Question: Is there some type of food, e.g. wheat, corn, apples, broccoli, …, for which there is a subsidy for the conventional grower but none for the organic grower? If not, is there some other kind of subsidy that favors conventional over organic? If not that, what is the connection between subsidies and price differences?

            • Steve Savage says:

              Charles,
              there has never been a subsidized crop where organic versions didn’t get it. For the most part subsidies have been for the major row crops, not fruits and vegetables – conventional or organic. The argument has been that this leads to cheaper junk food so people buy less vegetables etc. Economist Rob Paarlberg of the Harvard Kennedy School debunked that – the subsidies actually make food slightly more expensive.

              Starting with Whole Food’s consolidation of the “Natural Foods” stores in the 1990s, organic has been positioned in the food manufacturing and retailing industry as a “up sale” – a premium niche product. Part of the excuse is that its costs the grower more to produce, but a premium is also taken at every step in the chain. None of this has anything to do with crop subsidies

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