David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.
Next month, California voters will decide whether to require food producers to disclose the presence of Genetically Modified Organisms, known as GMOs, in the foods they sell. The bill (California Proposition 37) does not prohibit GMOs in foods; it simply requires that GMO content be disclosed on labels. As such, the proposal strikes a sensible balance between the dangers of too much regulation and the dangers of too little.
Genetically Modified Organisms are plants or animals that have had their DNA modified in a laboratory. For food plants (like corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets) one particular genetic modification has overriding commercial importance: These plants have been modified so they resist weed-killers like Monsanto's Roundup. As a result, farmers can spray an entire field, both the food crop and the weeds, and only the weeds die. Other genetic modifications aim increase yield, extend shelf life, resist drought or frost, and fend off insects and microbes. Together, these genetic changes boost yields, save farmers' money, and lower food prices for consumers. Not surprisingly, the primary advocates for GMOs are growers and producers of agricultural chemicals.
Critics of GMOs raise two important concerns, which we must consider alongside the benefit of GMOs: the impact of GMOs on public health, and their impact on the economics of America's hugely productive agricultural system. The public health issues get most of the scrutiny but the economic issues are just as important.
Public Health Effects Not Well Studied
The long term health effects of GMOs have not been well investigated. This technology falls through the cracks of existing food and drug regulations. When crops are modified, the change may alter its nutritional properties, taking away nutrients that are needed for human health and introducing substances that are harmful. Too little is known about the workings of DNA to predict the result, and little testing has been done.
GMOs bring indirect health risks as well as direct risks. Once a crop has been modified to resist weed-killers, it can be sprayed without limit. Some herbicide will remain in and on the plant, and will make its way to your dinner plate. The long-term consequences of eating small amounts of herbicide every day have not been studied. There is no proof that it is dangerous, but there is no proof that it is safe.
Intellectual Property Protection Damages Markets
Even if GMOs are proven to be completely safe to eat, there remain important economic risks. First, the companies that develop GMO strains of common crops are being very aggressive in protecting their intellectual property. Their crops are literally spread by the wind, and farmers who plant their fields with non-GMO crops can find their crops inadvertently cross-pollinated by genetically modified crops next door. When cross-pollination occurs, farmers have been sued by deep-pocketed chemical companies. These lawsuits force farmers to adopt GMO-based farming, whether they want to or not.
A short while ago, Microsoft attempted a similarly coercive business practice. In licensing the Windows operating system to computer hardware manufacturers, Microsoft was reported to charge manufacturers a licensing fee for each PC they shipped, regardless of whether or not each PC ran Windows! This practice, shielded by nondisclosure agreements, was known colloquially as the "Windows Tax." This was obviously an attempt by Microsoft to prevent the penetration of Linux. The practice suppresses innovation and undermines competition. It is justifiably illegal in many countries.
With food security and food costs a growing challenge, we need to safeguard free and open competition in the agricultural industry. We must not allow restrictive Intellectual Property protections to suppress innovation in alternative farming practices, or the continuation of long-proven practices.
Higher Long-Term Costs When Weeds Adapt
With the advent of GMOs, agriculture now faces a risk that has plagued medicine for years. It's well known that bacteria have evolved to defeat the best antibiotics that scientists have developed. New strains of super-bacteria kill millions of people. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten patients even in the best hospitals. Scientists predict that DNA will migrate to weeds from genetically engineered plants, and then our best herbicides will become useless. Very little is known about how DNA jumps from one species to another, but we know that it does. Once herbicide resistance jumps to weeds, farm yields will fall, and costs will rise, hurting both farmers and consumers. Farms will be much less productive than before GMOs were invented since there will be no way to control weeds short of digging them up mechanically.
Markets Need Information to Work Well
For markets to work effectively and bring the benefits of competition to society, buyers and sellers need good information. Product quality needs to be transparently and fully disclosed. This principle is widely accepted in our society: Auto manufacturers must disclose gas mileage. Pharmaceutical companies must disclose the research that demonstrates drug safety and effectiveness. Airlines must post their on-time arrival records. And mortgage lenders must disclose interest rates and other terms. Markets are never made better by lack of information—except in cases where the information is prohibitively expensive to produce, which is not the case here. The cost of compliance with California's labeling proposition is a few pennies per person per year.
A Step in the Right Direction
Requiring disclosure of GMO content is the right step for now. Not enough is known to ban the use of GMOs outright in the face of their potential benefits. But not enough is known to allow us to trust that this technology is entirely benign. It's important to remain vigilant and aggressively research the important concerns. It's important to protect the business models of those farmers who chose not to embrace GMOs. And it's important to give consumers information that allows them to choose.