Why the GMO-labeling movement fell short

In the past year, major food companies have trumpeted the changes they are making in how they produce food — rolling out long-term plans to remove antibiotics from livestock production, reformulating favorites like mac-and-cheese to get rid of artificial ingredients, and in some cases vowing to improve the lives of animals destined to be eaten.

There’s debate, of course, on how meaningful these changes actually are. Yet one major campaign has stood out for its inability to achieve what activists hoped: GMO labeling. President Obama this month signed into law legislation requiring mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients. But the law does not require a clear, on-package label. Instead, it gives companies a choice—either disclose via a label or use a QR-code scanned by a smartphone.

“This was a bad bill, with a lot less than we wished for,” says Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm and the Just Label It campaign for GMO labeling. But he doesn’t think he lost the war.

As food issues go, labeling for GMO ingredients was contentious, opposed by a bevy of heavyweight lobbying groups, from the American Farm Bureau Federation to agro-chemical and big food companies to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. They were trying to override Vermont’s first-in-the-nation labeling law with federal action, because state labeling would have meant de facto national labeling. Six companies had already decided to meet Vermont’s requirements, that were to take effect July 1 — General Mills, ConAgra, Kellogg’s, Campbell, Mars and Dannon — by identifying GMO ingredients on their labels nationally.

GMO labeling required no expensive retooling of production lines, no banning of ingredients, no new practices. It was a label that advocates said amounted to a “consumer’s right to know.” Plus, labeling wasn’t unprecedented. As food-studies professor Marion Nestle of New York University points out, “These multinational companies were already labeling in Europe.” As for labeling in the U.S., “I didn’t notice sales of [Mars’] M&Ms dropping off a cliff,” she said.

Yet getting a full GMO label proved tougher than the campaigns by the Humane Society of the United States and others to get millions of egg-laying chickens out of battery cages and pregnant sows out of gestation crates. So why are the animal-welfare advocates succeeding while the GMO labeling camp is falling short? The reasons tell us a lot about how change happens in the food system.

First, the issue of humane treatment of animals has a visceral, emotional pull that can shock someone without any awareness of, or even interest in, food issues. You just need to be an animal lover—or at least someone who thinks animals shouldn’t be abused. Animal-rights campaigners knew that, which is why covert investigators filmed especially egregious practices, such as crowded, dirty battery cages; sow gestation crates, where pigs can’t even turn around; and blatant brutality against cows. The videos went viral and the often-slow-to-respond USDA in several cases launched immediate investigations. Companies buying products from these operations worried about risk to their brands.

The GMO issue didn’t have that kind of shock value. The issues activists articulated — corn and soybean monocultures, corporate concentration in the seed sector, Big Bad Monsanto, the rising use of herbicides with GMOs, the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds, and the move to combat those weeds with even more toxic chemicals — were important, but lacked the emotional punch of animal cruelty. Although polls have long shown that Americans by a wide margin support GMO labeling, the sentiment did not produce a consumer uproar. The issue hasn’t even surfaced in the presidential campaign.

Second, companies are happy to slap labels on their products (Gluten-free! Low-fat! Low-carb!), as long as they don’t appear to disparage the product. So despite all the talk of “transparency” and  “knowing where your food comes from,” most food companies didn’t want to disclose their GMO ingredients. Despite arguing that GMOs were crucial to feeding the world, food producers never wanted to celebrate them on their labels. Maybe they were worried by other polls showing a majority of Americans, in stark contrast to scientists, worry about the safety of GMOs.

The animal-welfare camp avoids pushing companies on the issue of labels entirely. “We haven’t sought to get companies to disclose animal practices,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society. “What we’ve really tried to do is to outlaw them, and we’re succeeding because the practices are so heinous and cruel that people are outraged.”

Third, proponents of GMO labeling had limited political success. Beyond Vermont, Alaska has a law requiring labels on genetically-modified salmon, while Maine and Connecticut passed labeling laws that only took effect if neighboring states adopted their own laws. But opponents of labeling spent tens of millions of dollars fighting ballot measures on GMO labeling in California, Oregon and Washington State, and voters defeated those measures, albeit by narrow margins.

Meanwhile, animal-welfare activists have been quite successful at the ballot boxbeginning in Florida in 2002, with a ban on gestation crates (which passed 55 percent to 45 percent). Another measure passed in Arizona in 2006 (62 to 38). Two years later, California voters passed proposition 2 (63 to 37), which outlawed gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages. So far, nine states have passed measures, by ballot or legislation, to ban animal confinement. Another measure is on the November ballot in Massachusetts.

There has been no corporate outcry to get Congress to overturn these state animal-welfare measures. In fact, Burger King and McDonald’s, among dozens of others, agreed to stop using eggs from hens raised in battery cages. The nation’s second-largest egg producer fell into line, too, after reportedly spending half a million dollars to try to defeat California’s Proposition 2. The animal-rights camp didn’t fight to get these ballot measures passed in every prime farm state, but they didn’t need to, because industry shifted when it saw the consumer tide turning.

Fourth, mainstream animal scientists and veterinarians, including some of the highest-profile scientists on animal behavior, vocally backed these campaigns and explained why gestation crates for pigs and battery cages for hens were inhumane.

GMO activists did not have the weight of the scientific establishment on their side. Scientific bodies repeatedly stated GMOs were safe. This wasn’t a green light to avoid evaluation and regulation of new plants (a point stressed by the National Academy of Sciences that GMO proponents often ignore). But those who painted GMOs as frankenfoods ended up pigeonholed as extremists. Although the labeling camp got a boost when a panel of the World Health Organization deemed the herbicide glyphosate, used with GMO crops, a likely carcinogen, the decision was more of a setback for the herbicide than for GMOs.

This isn’t to say the animal-welfare activists had it easy. They continue to face opposition from corporate and commodity farming entities that have long championed large-scale, concentrated livestock production in the same way they have championed GMOs. But the activists’ use of investigative techniques, political and industry pressure, targeting practices in well-chosen states, and appealing directly to voters, has produced change.

It’s important to note that GMO-labeling activists did not walk away empty-handed from this latest fight. They got mandatory labeling — even if only with QR codes. And some observers feel that opens the door to the innovative use of new apps for greater transparency in the food system.

As for Hirshberg, he says, “The outcome [on labeling] could have been much worse.” Just Label It is now working to influence the regulations USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has promised to push ahead with before he steps down in January, though the USDA has two years to complete the process. The campaign will also pressure industry to use an actual label. Whether it will be as successful as animal-welfare activists in getting industry to alter their stance remains to be seen.

Corrects final paragraph to make clear Vilsack is pushing ahead on regulations, though USDA has two years to finalize them. 

Sam Fromartz is the editor-in-chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Follow him @fromartz.