Imagine that you, an ordinary American consumer, are out shopping for groceries. You, like most savvy consumers, prefer to get the best deal you can – best product for the best price. But because it’s food you’re shopping for, safety is a huge factor in determining which foods are “best” for you and your family. Imagine that you see the following warning label on a product you might otherwise like to buy:
Scary, right? Certainly not something you’d be comfortable giving to your family to eat. And how relieving it would be to see the reverse kind of label on a competing product:
No brainer, right? You’d probably spend a few extra cents or dollars on a product that looks the same but that just sounds safer – even if you didn’t know what dihydrogen monoxide was, the fact that they felt it necessary to warn you about it makes you suspicious.
Of course, “dihydrogen monoxide” is merely water. But, if weren’t aware of this particular prank, that first label could look kind of scary to you, right? And the one after just looks so inviting, by contrast. So if you, the consumer, saw the labels alone, but didn’t really know what they were warning about, you would be perfectly justified in being bothered by the first one, and tempted by the second one. It would influence your buying decision for reasons that might be totally opaque to you.
There are a lot of perfectly valid warning labels on food products for safety reasons (“gluten-free,” “contains nuts”) and labels on other kinds of products that might otherwise give a consumer useful information that she’d want to know when buying that product (“Made in USA,” “Not from concentrate”). But now there is a push from lobbyists for the organic-food industry to compel grocers and manufacturers to label products that say “Contains GMOs.” (Genetically-modified organisms)
We don’t yet know what the hypothetical labels for GMO-containing food products would look like, but I somehow doubt they’d have the same kinds of colorful illustrations that non-GMO product makers put on their foods. The second label above is representative of the somewhat deceptive advertising strategy of non-genetically-modified foods, though I’ve admittedly dramatized the plant and the butterfly. It creates a sense of comfort in the consumer, a sense of relief about a product that the consumer presumes to be somehow superior. But there’s no equivalent to the first label, the scary warning label – yet.
Maine and Connecticut have already passed laws requiring stores to label GMO products, but thanks to lobbying from grocers and manufacturers, those laws contain provisions keeping them from going into effect until a certain critical mass of other states pass similar laws. And it looks like Massachusetts is going to be next.
So, should the state compel grocers and manufacturers to “warn” consumers about GMO foods?
Proponents have an easy job here. I mean, it’s not like the labels are technically lies – many foods really do contain genetically-modified organisms, and many consumers probably would want to know which do and which don’t. So what’s the problem?
Consumer protection is one of the most valuable roles of the state. The state compels businesses to protect the public, either by making its products safer or by providing information that they would want to have for their safety, because the free market simply won’t do it on its own – it never has, anyway. But manipulating the machinery of consumer protection for pure propaganda purposes sets a bad precedent in an age where corporate interests have unrivaled access to the government.
The valid role of consumer protection is to provide accurate information about the safety of certain products or to otherwise provide information that speaks to valid consumer concerns (“Made in USA” or “Made in China” is the classic non-safety-related valid consumer concern). But there’s a huge difference between warning people about an actual danger in food, and creating unwarranted fears about competitors’ products. Food warning labels for GMO products are inherently deceptive because they automatically (and I think deliberately) create an impression in the mind of the consumer that GMO products are dangerous, even if the warning labels don’t say so explicitly. They don’t protect the consumer from any information, they don’t speak to a valid consumer concern, they instead validate an unfounded growing public paranoia over perfectly safe, healthy foods.
And lets be clear – any fears about GMOs are unwarranted. The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Commission’s European Research Area, even academic parties like the University of California, are among the many thousands of ruthlessly empirical voices that have verified that GMOs aren’t just not bad for you, but that there are many reasons to think that they’re actually a better investment than unenhanced foods. Higher crop yields, better nutritional density, certainly nothing that would make you want to put a warning label on something.
Misleading consumers about the dangers of your competitors’ products is bad enough, but it’s just a part of business. It makes good economic sense to wage private battles against your competitors through clever, if not entirely honest, marketing. But it’s much worse when you use the machinery of consumer protection to do it for you, at the expense of the taxpayer and at the expense of the integrity of the consumer protection system. The role of consumer protection is consumer protection, not corporate advocacy. What the non-GMO lobby is pushing for is the incorporation of the state’s consumer protection interests into its own marketing agenda, not protecting the public from a valid health concern.
Furthermore, consumers who have pseudoscientific attachments to unenhanced foods, or similarly pseudoscientific aversions to GMOs, already have plenty of very visible alternatives. Organic food makers are always happy to slap their eye-catching labels on their products as they can. There are entire stores dedicated to non-GMO food products. Every consumer who wants to know the difference knows the difference already, and those consumers who don’t are apt to be misled by the mere existence of a “warning” label into believing that there’s something real to be warned about. And that’s fine – I have no problem with non-GMO food producers from playing up their marketing strategy all they want. That’s business, that’s markets doing what they do. What bothers me is the scary prospect that, with a sufficiently savvy marketing strategy, they can get the government to spend your tax dollars doing it for them.
Consumers have somehow lost sight of the fact that non-GMO foods are still made by businesses that are in what they do for the money. And their marketing strategy is working just fine on its own – everybody hates Monsanto, everybody feels warm and fuzzy about organic foods. They don’t need the state, using your tax dollars, to wage another volley in their marketing war on GMO foods, especially at the expense of the integrity of the valuable consumer protection process.
Deception is more than just straight-up lying to people. Deception can be done by insinuation, which is precisely what a “Warning: contains GMOs” label is. It is an invitation to fear something based on no evidence but lots of feelings. The market is what should be deciding whether safe, healthy GMOs or safe, healthy non-GMOs end up on the dinner table, not the government. The legitimate policy goals of consumer protection are far too important to sacrifice in service of the narrow interests of the organic food lobby, and warning labels that rely on nothing but innuendo are the first step towards a scary future where lobbyists can get the state to wage corporate marketing battles.