Biotechnology, Commentaries, Health January 24, 2017

There’s Nothing Parochial About the Issue of GMO Food Labeling

by Jonathan Latham

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

The GMO labeling issue has quieted down some but there is still plenty to discuss. Just this week the USDA proposed to redefine GMOs with new loopholes for gene editing. However, it is also possible for reasonable people to imagine that GMO labeling is a sideshow to the real business of the food movement. After all, most GMO foods and GMO crops are visually indistinguishable from non-GMOs, and tiny non-GMO labels can look pretty irrelevant on the side of a soda bottle containing whole cupfuls of sugar. Last week, Michael Pollan, Olivier de Schutter, Mark Bittman and Ricardo Salvador made that error, calling GMO labeling “parochial“. Granted, they wrote “important but parochial”, but qualifying the significance of GMO labeling in any way was a mistake.

The first issue is that GMOs are legally distinct from non-GMO crop varieties. They possess an enhanced legal status that has enabled GMOs to become a gushing profit centre for agribusiness. These rights not only allow their owners to steer farmers’ herbicide use, which also increases profits, they can also legally prevent independent research which would otherwise show up their advertising claims. The share price of Monsanto reached $142 in 2008, reflecting the enormous profitabilitys of massively increasing seed prices on the back of GMO introductions.

Monsanto Prop 37
California Proposition 37

Those profits have in turn fuelled a set of key agribusiness activities. One was the acquisition of almost the entire independent global seed business, which now resides in very few hands. The second was a cluster of enhanced PR and lobbying activities that were necessary to defend GMOs. Rather than hide in the shadows agribusiness corporations needed to come out swinging in defence of the indefensible, which necessitated, among other things, a much higher degree of control than previously over teaching content and research at public universities.

Thus their special legal status enabled an unprecedented ability to control both the present and the future of agriculture.

GMOs are also conflated with science and thus progress. They have the intellectual role of presenting agribusiness as the innovative and dynamic frontier of agriculture, in contrast to those people who base their efforts on ecological diversity, local expertise, or deep knowledge. This cutting edge image is key to the agribusiness business model of reaping tax breaks and subsidies (Lima, 2015).

All around the world, taxpayer money supports and subsidises agribusiness without which benefits it would not exist (Capellesso et al., 2016). In the final analysis, however, the GMOs-as-progress argument is circular. Agribusiness is innovative because it uses GMOs and GMOs show how innovative they are. Smoke and mirrors, but politicians fall for it every day, delivering massive transfers of wealth every year from the public to the private sector (Lima, 2015).

The biological truth of GMOs is equally disturbing. At one end of the food chain are the crops in the field. Many people have noticed the virtual disappearance of Monarch butterflies. There are three leading explanations of this disappearance. The loss from farmland of their larval host plants, milkweeds, is one possibility; poisoning of their caterpillar larvae after consuming insecticide-filled pollen from Bt insect-resistant GMOs is a second; and toxicity from the neonicotinoid pesticides used to treat GMO seeds is the third. The first two both stem directly or indirectly from GMO use in agricultural fields since before GMOs, milkweeds could not be eradicated and now they can. Most likely is that all three causes are true and that along with milkweeds GMO agriculture also decimated, or eradicated entirely, many other species too.

Monarchs are lovely, but they are not otherwise special. Their significance is as sentinels. Planting milkweeds and pollinator way stations to specially preserve a sentinel species does not rescue an agricultural ecosystem, but it will mask the symptoms. Agribusiness is right now hoping that no one will notice the difference, and that by bringing back monarchs it can obscure the facts of their killing fields.

Internationally too, GMOs threaten to transform agriculture in places like India where millions of people who make a living by labouring in fields could be displaced by herbicide-tolerant crops such as mustard.

At the human consumption end of the food chain, if you live in the US, no one is protecting you from potential health hazards due to GMOs. Makers of GMO crop varieties don’t even have to notify the FDA of a new product. And if the maker deems the product is not a pesticide they don’t have to notify the EPA either. Trump won’t make it worse because it can’t be worse. It is non-partisan contempt for public health.

What are those potential health hazards? One important example is the famous (or infamous) rat study of NK603 corn by the French research group of professor Gilles-Eric Séralini . It is the only longterm study of the effects of GMOs on a mammal. If you ignore the tumours that most people focused on, the study found major kidney and liver dysfunction in the treated animals (Séralini et al., 2014). This dysfunction was evident from biochemical measurements and was also visually apparent under the microscope. These results are of no interest to US regulators, even in principle, since they fall between jurisdictions.

From this we can conclude that GMOs are often harmful, directly and indirectly, and further, that they are the leading edge of the business model of agribusiness.

The question, however, was labeling. Imagine that organic food was not allowed to be labeled. Would there be such an organised and powerful challenge to industrial food? What labeling does for the agriculture and food system is to allow the public to express its dismay and disagreement with the direction of corporate agriculture and assert their democratic rights to protect themselves. Labeling allows the public to engage with specific policies and products within the vast complexity of the food system and push back in a focused way against corruption and dishonesty, in real time. There aren’t too many chances to do that in America today.


Capellesso AJ, Ademir Antonio Cazella, Abdon Luiz Schmitt Filho, Joshua Farley, and Diego Albino Martins (2016) Economic and environmental impacts of production intensification in agriculture: comparing transgenic, conventional, and agroecological maize crops. AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 40: 215–236. Lima T. (2015) Agricultural Subsidies for Non-farm Interests: An Analysis of the US Agro-industrial Complex. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 4(1) 54–84o-industrial Complex
Séralini G-E, Emilie Clair, Robin Mesnage, Steeve Gress, Nicolas Defarge, Manuela Malatesta, Didier Hennequin and Joël Spiroux de Vendômois (2014) Republished study: long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerantgenetically modified maize. Environmental Sciences Europe 26:14 DOI: 10.1186/s12302-014-0014-5

If this article was useful to you please consider sharing it with your networks.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Comments 4
  • I am writing from the UK.
    The situation in the EU is complicated and the UK has Brexit. News today….

    EU situation….I understand there is often confusion and it’s easy to see why about the 0.9%. What does this 0.9% actually mean?
    GMO Labelling: Guidelines
    Why a threshold?
    Labelling is only required for products that exceed the 0.9 percent threshold. Why not zero percent?
    During the production, transportation, and processing of agricultural products, a small amount of mixing between different fields and different shipments is difficult to prevent. For this reason, even when a product was intended to be completely GMO-free, traces of GMOs can often still be detected. Products containing these unintentional or technically unavoidable mixtures with GM material do not require labelling, as long as the GM content does not exceed 0.9 percent.”

    I am not an expert on the EU regulations and if anyone wants to know all the legislation and recent developments in the EU regarding national bans, then they would need to check.

    Here is what the UK’s FSA has to say:

    So in the EU we have to think about bans as well as labeling.

    With regard to the UK, Theresa May is meeting with Mr Trump on Friday. I hope she knows what she is talking about with regard to EU and US Trade Deals.

    Trading Standards in the UK do not always enforce the EU law and many cafe owners are unaware that they are using GM cooking oil and are unaware that they are required to put a notice up for customers.

    Brexit and new trade deals?

    There has been a My Science Inquiry and

    It has been suggested to watch this committee for future agriculture inquiries:

    The precautionary principle problem in the UK. Policy makers need to understand that the precautionary principle means good science.

    GM Freeze have a campaign.
    Liz at GM Freeze recently posted “There’s a hugely important vote due on Friday (27 January), when European nations will decide whether or not to support the cultivation of GM crops. There are three maize crops up for discussion – one is a renewal of Mon810, the only GM crop currently authorised for cultivation in the EU, and the other two are similar types of GM maize. Avaaz has a petition: and there’s also an action to lobby national representatives here: Please take part and share, especially with friends living in other EU countries.”

    The labeling discussions in the US and EU are different?

  • Hey Jonathan, welcome back! This post is great because it highlights the mechanisms through which agricultural systems are centralized and privatized, in this case with regard to corporations pushing GE foods and “modern science” as their Trojan Horse to monopolize foodways. It’s another example of the manifold ways in which the commons are further enclosed to benefit an elite minority. One thought on the labeling issue: Isn’t there a de facto GMO-free label already? Certified organic?

  • Thank you

    I deeply appreciate access to this informative perspective in a readable language for a non-scientist like me.

  • This article provides an excellent brief against GMOs, one which no doubt Pollan et al. would endorse, but it’s a little short on the issue of labelling, which is only addressed cursorily in the last paragraph. While I think Pollan et al. were off-base in calling labeling ‘parochial’, and while I happen to support labelling (because labels do increase the transparency of food ingredients for consumers, and because vast majorities support them so it is democratically imperative), I do wonder at their actual efficacy at slowing, halting or reversing the spread of GMOs, and thus wonder whether the enormous efforts – campaigning, fundraising, and fraught labelling battles with Big Food – are worth it.

    The labelling theory of change rests on a fundamental assumption: if foods containing GMOs (currently, the majority of processed foods in countries like the U.S.) were labelled as such, consumers would reject those foods, and this would in turn strike a significant blow against the agribusiness industry and to the cultivation and even further development of GMOs themselves. In other words, GMO labels are a tactical, intermediary means to achieving the real end of toppling corporate agribusiness and eliminating GMO seeds and foods. But to my understanding, the acreage planted to GMO crops around the world is increasing dramatically, at the same time as some 64 countries (including some big GMO producers, like Brazil) require labelling. At the least, this makes it look doubtful whether there is a verifiable causal relationship one way or another between GMO food product labelling on the one hand, and acreage of GMO crops planted, much less legalization of such planting in the first place, on the other. If someone has research showing a positive relationship between labelling and reducing GMO acreage and consumption, please do share.

    Certainly, the groups and individuals pouring their resources, time and passion into labelling campaigns agree that this is but one-amongst-many necessary strategies, and a preliminary one at that, against GMOs. The problem, however, is not just that labelling is of questionable efficacy against GMOs (or corn syrup or transfats or all the other unhealthy ingredients that comfortably persist despite being well-labelled) and agribusiness, but that labelling and the politics it tacitly embraces is flawed. Labelling campaigns (surely unintentionally) embrace a thoroughly neo-liberal model of action and change, one which has become ascendant in recent decades, namely individual consumer responsibility. “Consumers should have the right to know if GMOs are in their food, and should be able to decide on them thereby”, the argument goes. This creates a situation not unlike warning signs staked to lawns recently sprayed with pesticides, warning passers-by to keep off. “It’s up to you”, the message implies, “to keep these pesticides – or these GMOs – out of your body, if you don’t want them there.” Not, “industry should not be permitted to manufacture products of questionable safety and necessity and foist them into our common environment where they ultimately can’t be totally avoided,” or, “it’s industry’s responsibility not to poison or harm me or introduce otherwise objectionable products.” GMO labelling campaigns substitute the urgently needed radical politics of precaution through regulatory bans and proscriptions with the politics of mainstream economic “consumer sovereignty” (i.e. regulate through the cash-register rather than through legislation, bans etc.). The politics of labelling tacitly says, only now – after the genuinely meaningful decisions about whether to conduct transgenic research and develop transgenic organisms; whether to privatize, patent and commercialize them; and finally whether to introduce them onto millions of acres of farmland and into the diets of entire countries have all already been made completely outside of democratic processes – are consumers finally invited to register their will… “do I buy this product with GMOs in it, or not?” The existence of GMOs themselves gets rather normalized.

    Again, I don’t oppose labelling by any means. Anything to get people thinking more about the realities – including corporate genetic manipulation – of the modern food system is laudable. All other things being equal – including living in a thoroughly marketized, GMO-saturated country – having labels to inform us (those who attend to labels, at any rate) of our subjugation is probably better than not. But if labels as such do not genuinely pose a threat to – and may even help normalize – GMOs, it is worth asking whether this is actually a worthwhile battle for the good food movement in the U.S. to pour its energies into. Luckily, it is not a such a starkly zero-sum situation. Labelling campaigners are also working towards rebuilding local, organic food systems and directly confronting corporate power, efforts that will go much further towards achieving our real goals, in my opinion.

Leave a comment