In 2014, the most costly ballot-measure campaign in the history of the state of Oregon was waged. At stake was not a traditional hot-button issue such as gun control, abortion, or assisted suicide. Rather this ballot measure required mandatory labeling of food products that contained, or were produced with, genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”).
After the dust had settled, a total of nearly thirty million dollars had been spent on the ballot-measure. That’s a lot of green. The pro-labeling contingent behind Measure 92, the Oregon Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Initiative, ended up losing in a recount by only 837 out of over 1.5-million votes cast. The disparity in spending, however, was not nearly as close. The “No on 92” campaign raised over twice as much as its opponent.
Looking at the sources of the financing for each side reveals a lot about the issue. Out of the twenty million dollars raised by “No on 92”, all but $1,110.00 came from corporate contributors. All but $3285.00 of those donations came from out of state donors.
The largest contributor to “No on 92” was the Monsanto Company, a St. Louis, Missouri based corporation that is the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seeds for crops and also one of the largest producers of herbicides and pesticides. Monsanto spent just shy of six million dollars on behalf of the effort to prevent GMO labeling. The second-largest contributor to “No on 92” was DuPont Pioneer, and Iowa-based company that produces GMO crop seeds.
In the wake of the Citizens United ruling, guaranteeing the ability of corporations to donate to political campaigns, this raises a host of questions about the extent to which we want corporations participating in our democracy. To understand precisely what the goals may have been of these corporations let’s examine more closely what GMOs are and why people might avoid the label.
GMOs are organisms who DNA has been altered by scientific intervention in a way that does not occur naturally or by natural recombination or mating. Individual genes can be selected and transferred from one organism to another, regardless of whether those species are related. GMO crops are developed to have particular traits such as increased insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, greater yield, or higher nutritional value. Most scientists believe that this process and the resulting products are safe for consumers and pose no more safety risk than conventional breeding techniques, although there is not complete consensus.
An often overlooked danger of GMO crops, however, are their potential negative effects on the environment. Some evidence substantiates that increased reliance on herbicides by farmers due to herbicide-resistance crop strains has resulted in the creation of “superweeds” that are immune to these chemicals. Farmers then turn to .. The widespread sale and export of GMO crops has also replaced many indigenous crop species throughout the world and decreased biodiversity within the food supply. The risk of having single-strain “monocultures” as opposed to genetic diversity is that it increases the likelihood of catastrophic crop failure due to a single pest or disease, such as the potato blight that caused the Great Irish Famine.
While many countries have put in place precautionary measures to allow increased GMO labeling and testing by agreeing to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the United States is not one of the 168 signatories. When one looks at the amount of money that multinational agrochemical companies have spent to protect their interests in Oregon, a notably small state by population, it leaves little doubt that they are fighting hard to prevent increased regulation or transparency on a national or international scale. And so far, these companies have been successful.
Even though the United States is the world’s leading producer of GMO crops, there is currently no federal regulation that is specific to GMOs. Oversight has been diffused across several different federal agencies and is quite deferential to the agricultural industry and self-regulation. The underlying premise behind regulation has been to operate under the assumption that the focus should be on the nature of the product itself, not the process used to produce it. Implicitly, this ignores the environmental effects of GMOs.
As has happened in other policy areas where the United States has traditionally favored a laissez-faire policy that was friendly to the interests of large industries, such as climate change or fossil fuel production, grass-roots movements are beginning to push back. Over twenty-five states have had proposed legislation regarding GMO labeling. Maine and Connecticut have already passed GMO-labeling laws; however, the laws are contingent upon the enactment of similar laws by surrounding states. Vermont is currently litigating with industry groups over the labeling law they passed in 2014. These laws would allow the environmentally conscious consumer, as well as those concerned about biological diversity and public health to make an informed choice.
Consumers are increasingly demanding more information about not only what is in the goods that they purchase, but also how those goods were produced. They expect a shirt to not only say that it is made of cotton, but also what country produced it. The process, not just the product, is for many consumers an important part of the decision of whether something is worth buying. When these purchase decisions can potentially effect the environment, such as with a car’s gas mileage, this knowledge becomes even more significant. GMOs likely impact the environment. The federal government would be wise to listen to both consumers and other countries, and begin creating a more comprehensive and deliberate policy of regulation and oversight of GMOs.