Issue 171: Labelling of GE foods: consumer 'choice' or boycott?


(Also in this issue: "Harmonization, Orchestration, or just plain propaganda?" Canadian Food Iinspection Agency reply to our question of Canada's position on labelling in Codex Alimentarius (see RH#170); rbGH update... and more)

In the brave new world of genetic engineering, things are often not quite what they seem. Potatoes are toxin factories; pigs are human spare parts shops. Even strategies to ensure that our food supply is safe, wholesome, and organized for the benefit of the public, are often not as simple as they may at first appear. Take, for example, the non-moratorium recently achieved by the EU on genetically engineered food products. Or the issue of labelling: why are we calling for labelling of genetically-engineered foods, when what we clearly want is to get rid of them altogether?

Labelling is generally understood to be a matter of nutrition information and of consumer choice, or simply fair trading. Food standards and labelling were established to overcome the laissez faire policy of "buyer beware" of earlier years.

Consumer choice requires that foods be labelled so that people who have physical or religious sensitivities can avoid those products which would offend or harm them: thus we have kosher, vegetarian, and "may contain traces of peanuts" labels. The Canadian government, however, has taken on itself (under industry guidance) to claim that products derived through genetic engineering require no labelling because there are no nutritional differences between these products and their normal counterparts, although no testing is required to prove the claim

The biotech industry, on the other hand, may now be realizing that it has painted itself into a corner by extolling the benefits of biotechnology while trying to hide GE foods from the public. Labelling may be not only inevitable, but even desirable, if the industry can turn the growing public demand for labelling to its own purposes. If it could create a simplistic public demand for labelling, with no fundamental critique of genetic engineering and no mention of corporate control, then it could regain the high ground and proclaim that is simply responding to consumer demand.

In a recent speech to the Monsanto board of directors, none other than the president of the Rockefeller Foundation has called for labelling. This is significant, given that it was the Rockefeller Foundation which laid the ideological and financed the 'scientific' foundations for both the Green Revolution and the development of commercial biotechnology.

"Consumers have a right to choose whether to eat GM foods or not. There are certainly logistic problems in separating crops all the way from field to retail sale but this technology will not be accepted unless consumers feel they have a choice. If consumers wish to be informed whether they are eating GM foods, they have a right to know. Monsanto should come out immediately and strongly in favour of labelling." - Gordon Conway, president, Rockefeller Foundation, remarks prepared for the Monsanto board of directors, June 24, 1999

Conway's remarks may be falling on fertile soil. Following the publication of the Nature article about the Cornell University research on the potential harmful effects of Bt corn on Monarch butterfly larvae, Chemical & Engineering News (31/5/99 ) reported that

"Thomas E. Nickson, a Monsanto regulatory science expert, said he now considers the labelling of genetically modified crops for export inevitable. But, he says, the only way it can work is to have an accepted standard for a label of "GM free" that allows a certain level of contamination, such as 1% genetically modified components.

"Ernest S. Micek, chairman of corn processing giant Cargill, Minneapolis, echoes that view.'Segregation systems that separate various types of genetically modified crops are the wave of the future,' he says, because crops with special end-user traits such as the ability to fight cancer and heart disease will have to be marketed separately. [These are referred to as Identity-Preserved or IP crops - ed.] "Over the past month, nearly all U.S. corn refiners, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, announced that they will not accept any variety of genetically modified corn that has not been approved in Europe. Actually, ADM decided to do so 13 months ago, but it has publicized the decision more in recent weeks, says ADM Senior Vice President Martin L. Andreas. 'This will guarantee we can process the corn into food ingredients for European markets,' he says. Last year, U.S. farmers lost about $200 million in sales of corn and corn products to Europe because the EU has not approved most varieties of genetically modified corn.

"The National Soybean Association has also gotten into the genetic modification fray. It has asked producers not to commercialize additional varieties of genetically modified soybean until they are approved in Europe. In the meantime, it wants companies to develop an effective identity preservation labelling program to keep unapproved varieties out of export channels."

"Consumer choice", then, includes the industrial 'consumers' as well as customers at the grocery store.

Consumer choice, Monsanto style: "Most corn pollen remains within the corn field and monarch larvae can choose to avoid feeding on Bt pollen by feeding on the underside of [milkweed] leaves or on other milkweed leaves with little or no Bt pollen."

Certainly there are those for whom labelling is simply a matter of individual consumer choice and food safety. They argue that a person should be able to choose, or not, foods produced through biotechnology, that is, g.e. foods, or GMOs. But this position is not necessarily opposed to biotechnology and g.e. foods per se. It may be based simply on a real concern about personal health consequences, such as allergenicity.

It may also be a concern with the potential environmental consequences of inadequately tested and badly regulated GMOs While these concerns are real and legitimate, they may lead not to a call for a ban of all g.e.,but simply for a better regulatory process and adequate labelling, or a moratorium until more is known about the potential consequences of genetic engineering.

Colleagues who have questioned the wisdom of a campaign demanding the labelling of genetically engineered foods, or foods produced from genetically engineered ingredients, suggest that the demand for labelling may also amount to little more than an acknowledgement that g.e. food is here to stay. Labelling would be simply a generous concession to the cult of consumer 'choice'.

A ban by any other name would smell as sweet


The call for labelling, however, can be much more than an individualistic demand for "consumer choice" and a proof of "safety". It may, in fact, be a strategic means to achieve a de facto boycott of 'foods produced through biotechnology'. It may be a means of voting against the corporate control of food. It may be a means to rejecting all genetic engineering on ethical or moral grounds. It all depends on context, as I have written in Farmageddon.

The situation we are faced with in the case of transgenic canola is a good illustration. Canola was developed from rapeseed some thirty years ago through traditional plant selection and breeding. It has been proclaimed and widely recognized as an unusually 'healthy' oil for human consumption, including being given GRAS status (Generally Recognized As Safe) in the U.S. Add to this its genetic malleability and the scale on which it has come to be grown in Canada and it is obvious why it became one of the first widely produced transgenic plants and foods. (see RH #169)

Then along came Calgene (later bought out by Monsanto) and others who saw canola as an ideal subject for genetic engineering to make the plant herbicide tolerant. Obviously this meant greater sales for the herbicides, such as Liberty and Roundup, produced by the chemical companies turned seed companies.

Now, with more than 50% of the canola grown in Canada genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance, there are a growing number of people who realize something is being put over on them without their knowledge, and that this something may not be good for them. In other words, just as nutritional concerns are moving beyond the four food groups, the public is beginning to realize that they have been excluded, due to lack of labelling, from being able to exercise their values through the food they eat.

Canola has, of course, some rather special properties. It is a 'proudly Canadian' product. It is touted as a particularly healthy oil. It is a single product for which there are alternatives in the marketplace. And, unlike the Bt potato which may well be hazardous to humans with compromised digestive systems, concerns about canola oil are clearly about genetic engineering itself. As the Canola Council of Canada, in the person of Dale Adolph, likes to tell those who take the time to write and object to the unidentified use of transgenic canola seed to produce canola oil, the herbicide tolerance characteristic is a protein that is found only in the meal, not in the oil, after processing. Therefore, says Adolph somewhat disingenuously, the canola oil is not transgenic.

The public has the choice of consuming oil from transgenic canola, or not buying or using canola oil at all unless it is certified organic or comes through a processor able to guarantee the oil to be GE-free. In other words, a de facto boycott of oil from genetically engineered seed. On top of all this, there is the very significant issue of potential environmental damage. Which makes it all very similar to the new de facto moratorium on GE crops and foods in Europe.

In this context, labelling IS a matter of consumer choice, but it is a choice to drive GE foods out of the market and reduce the level of corporate control, not just to get the products of transnational corporations labelled for purposes of individual consumption.

Why not simply call for a ban on genetic engineering, then, if what we are after is to get genetic engineering out of food (including cotton as cottonseed oil) altogether?

Morally, this has its appeal. It sounds simple and straightforward. But if one calls for a ban, who is there to listen? Who, or what agency, is going to institute or legislate a ban? Certainly not Chretien or Clinton, certainly not the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.

Apart from the political folly of calling for a ban, a call for a ban would raise a great many more issues about the use of biotechnology in drugs, medical treatment and reproductive technology - issues that may be just as important, and socially perhaps even more important, than issues raised by the genetic engineering of food crops. Strategically, it may just be wise to tackle the issues one by one. If the market for GE canola disappears, so will GE canola. This will give us an opportunity to address the other important issues: the bad science which uses the population as guinea pigs for GE products that have been subjected to no long-term testing; the dangers of environmental contamination and genetic deterioration of crop varieties; the corporate control of the whole food system; the real dangers and even the conceivable benefits of biotechnologies under public control and rigorous, transparent regulation.

So it all comes back to a matter of context. How is the call for labelling framed: as a matter of (bourgeois) consumer choice or as a tool to drive GE foods out of the market and off the farm?

The call for labelling is a 'reasonable' demand and as such it is a powerful tool for public education about the dangers of the uncontrolled experiment the biotech industry is conducting on the general public. We know that, to the industry's chagrin, the more the public knows about biotech the less they like it. Once biotech foods are labelled, the markets will disappear and public understanding of, and opposition to, corporate control of the food system will grow.

Addendum: An indication of industry strategy is that where labelling is being called for (EU, Japan, Australia/New Zealand), generous tolerance levels (up to 5% of the final product from GE sources) are proposed, in order to allow for genetic pollution of the crop or product. This is simply not acceptable. Total segregation of GE crops & foods is possible and necessary, just as it is possible and necessary for organic and other identity preserved crops. If the industry says it cannot be done, they are simply lying, because they are already doing it when it suits their business purposes. In any case, there is always the option of not producing GE seeds, crops and food in the first place.