Confusing Categories: GMOs

FDA_Nutrition_Facts_Label_2006My home state of Vermont voted to label GMOs not so long ago. Unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders also supports labeling GMOs. Perhaps more surprisingly, some large food manufacturers are starting to move in that direction as well, notably and recently Campbell Soup. For many progressives and liberals, GMO labeling represents a win in food advocacy.

But I try not to have sacred cows, and I try to question everything, and thus I find myself forced into a different, and locally controversial, position. It’s not that I’m against labeling GMOs exactly, because I really am not sure what I think about that aspect of the debate. But I get stuck on one sort of important observation: “GMO” doesn’t mean any one thing. Or at least, I don’t think it means something in the way we keep talking about it.

Let me explain: so far as I can tell, there are three major categories of thing on food labels.

The first category is a content category—what’s actually in the product. If you read the ingredients list, or the nutrition facts, or (sometimes) the name of the product, those things describe what’s inside.

The second category is a process category—this describes how and where a thing was made. If you read “product of Mexico” on a sticker on your fruit, it tells you broadly where it was grown. Likewise if you read “grass-fed beef” it tells you something about how the animal was raised.

And the third category, unfortunately, is a nonsense category—or maybe I should call it an “advertising” category, since it mainly includes modifiers that companies have tacked on for feel, but which mean little or nothing as regards to process or content. If you read “all-natural” or “artisan” or “premier” on a food label, it has no official definition; it’s only there to inspire feelings of unverifiable good will on your part and get you to buy that product over the nearly identical one on the next shelf.

Getting back to GMOs, I worry first that advocates of GMO labeling treat “GMO” like a content category instead of a process category—a description of what’s in a product rather than a description of how the product was made. I am concerned also that a GMO label in the second category, the process category, is actually not very useful. To wit, a partial list of things a GMO label does not tell me about my food:

  • Anything about what kind of modification was made
  • Anything about the production of non-GMO ingredients
  • Anything about any of the specific ingredients
  • Anything about whether it was grown industrially or ecologically
  • Anything about the farm where it was grown
  • Anything about the farmer who grew it

“Product of Mexico” can only tell me one thing about my food. Unfortunately, I think a GMO label is the same: the only thing it tells me about my food is that someone, somewhere, directly modified some part of one of the ingredients. The GMO process label would treat Golden Rice, Flavor-Saver Tomatoes, and Roundup-ready Corn as the same thing, when in fact they have almost nothing in common.

But we keep talking about GMO labels as if they will tell us “what’s in our food.” And so I worry that by conflating the process and the content, we’re creating a legal requirement for a label that will end up in the third category: giving us no actual information. Rather than looking carefully at what’s in our food (which, I admit, is hard), we may end up using “GMO” or “Non-GMO” as poor heuristics in the same way we buy “natural” products with a sort of fuzzy uncritical preference.

At the bottom of it, I’m not sure it’s as big a deal as many people are making it. There are lots of third-category labels out there already, and lots of people presume that those words mean something, and most of the time it really doesn’t matter that they don’t. But personally, I feel that if we’re going to pass laws adding things to our labels, it behooves us to make sure the things we add have real meaning.

For GMOs, I think that means if we’re going to label them, which it seems we are, let’s please also legally define them. Let’s have a label that we can actually use to know something, instead of a label we can only use to feel something.



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