There’s the liberal assault on our supply chain. Unbeknownst to most Americans, even most free-market activists, the left has for years now been executing plans to exert more and more control over the supply chains of American businesses.
Last week, the National Center for Public Policy Research, which I serve as chairman, attended the annual shareholder meeting of the Monsanto Corporation to help beat back a shareholder proposal aimed at furthering activist calls for government-mandated labels on food with genetically-modified ingredients.
Our aim was indeed to help protect the future of these foods, known colloquially (if not quite accurately) as GMOs. Why would we do this? Because there’s a lot more at stake than just labels on products, and because we oppose efforts by activists to raise the price of products for American families.
If the left succeeds in their fight to require special labels on GMOs, American consumers will see their prices go up and their product choices unnecessarily limited. What’s more, small businesses will find barriers to entry that give the biggest corporations an unfair advantage in the marketplace, and Americans will find themselves bound by regulations imposed by people who haven’t been elected to any office, or even appointed by someone who was.
The fight over GMO labeling is itself rather straightforward. Some crops, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets, have been genetically-modified to make them more resistant to herbicides and pests, require less water and land resources to grow, improve yields per acre, and so forth.
Americans have eaten millions of meals with GMO ingredients since these crops were first commercialized in 1996. Seventy percent of the processed food in the United States contains them. Experience shows they’re safe, and they’ve been certified so by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society, the European Union Commission and many peer-reviewed studies.
Activists, however, complain that – safe or not (which many of them choose to doubt) – they shouldn’t have to buy food labeled “organic” or seek out “no GMOs” labels to avoid food with GMO ingredients.
The activists argue instead that government should require food manufacturers to list GMO ingredients on food packages, with the not inconsiderable costs (due to technical challenges, particularly given the difficulty of tracing feed sources for meat and dairy products) to be borne by their fellow food purchasers, to the tune of about $500 per family per year.
Not for them is the more liberty-minded approach of just asking the food manufacturer if a favored item contains GMO ingredients. No, the activists want it mandated, and after state referendums to require labels were rejected by the voters in California and Washington State, they’ve turned their sights on the federal government. After all, if California and Washington state voters won’t mandate GMO labeling, it’s probably not about to sweep the nation – except by force.
Hence a renewed new effort to get the labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during the administration of a president who once pledged to support such labels (although as the pledge was made in 2007, keeping it appears to be a lower Obama priority than his golf game).
So why would anyone oppose such a step? First, if you believe in the free market, you should oppose this effort. If a sufficient market exists for foods labeled “no GMOs,” that market will spring up… and so it has. Responding to market forces, McDonald’s and Gerber have rejected genetically-engineered apples. General Mills has announced Cheerios will no longer be made with GMOs. General Mills pushes “no GMO” cereals and Whole Foods and Trader Joes are upping their GMO labeling; all of this without government intervention.
The organic food industry furthermore is flourishing; the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that organic food sales increased by 11 percent from 2011-2012. The market works for those who buy organic, and it also works for people who are comfortable with GMOs.
Second, if you oppose cronyism, you should oppose this effort. Much of the anti-GMO effort is financed by organic food manufacturers who want their competitors forced to slap labels on their products that make consumers think – falsely, we believe – that organic products are safer. Why should Americans pay more for food for their tables to give a small number of organic food manufacturers a government-imposed advantage over their non-organic competition?
Third, we should be wary of the labels themselves. They are designed to carry a baseless stigma. As Scientific American wrote in a 2013 editorial, “Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health.” In Europe, the magazine writes, mandatory labeling drove GMOs out of supermarkets, with costs both to consumers and to the environment.
To cite one example, as my colleague at the National Center, Dr. Bonner Cohen, has written, prodded by “sustainability” activists, major retailers have for years now pushed unnecessary private environmental regulations on their suppliers. These at times costly programs, designed ostensibly to fight climate change and for other environmental purposes, limit market entry for new products that don’t meet these arbitrary (and to the public, largely invisible) standards and put small business suppliers at a disadvantage.
Never mind that market forces alone – the desire to save money – spurs retailers and suppliers to reduce energy usage to the extent possible; these activists want control of what people can buy, how it is packaged, how it is manufactured and in what facilities. If there’s one thing the limping U.S. economy does not need, it’s more controls warping the decision making processes of businesses and consumers.
American consumers already are armed with the most potent tool possible for influencing American business: Their money. Anti-GMO activists are at liberty to ask questions of merchants and to vote with their wallets for the products they prefer, and they should always retain this freedom. We likewise deserve our own liberty to not to be forced to finance regulatory tools for activists who seek to drive away safe products and to impose new straightjackets on the American economy.