Last week I spooned into a babbling baby’s mouth food her mother had sent along, both for my convenience and because she is particular that her baby eats food that’s organic and grown without genetically modified seed. This mother, my friend, opposes legislation to undercut labeling of genetically modified food.
My friend reads scientific literature and knows that diet can play a big role in childhood pesticide exposure. As The New York Times reported last week, another recent study comparing children on conventional and organic diets demonstrated that children eating an organic diet for several days can rapidly reduce pesticides in their urine. The report said, “Of the six most frequently detected pesticides, two decreased by nearly 50 percent when children were on the organic diet, and levels of a common herbicide fell by 25 percent.” Despite documented industry efforts to suppress or discredit such research, there is growing scientific evidence about the role that diets play in exposing children to pesticides, and my friend is careful.
But why would she also worry about genetically modified seed? There might be many reasons, but a science-based concern derives from the most common mechanism of such seed. While some genetically modified seed works by actually incorporating an insecticide into the plant, the most common incorporates resistance to common herbicides, allowing farmers to spray more of those herbicides without killing their crops. Thus, one can be sure that corn using Roundup Ready seed has been sprayed with Roundup to kill weeds. Last year, the industry successfully pressured USDA to permit new seeds, bred to resist herbicides more toxic than Roundup.
My friend wants to avoid the reproductive, immunological, behavioral, and other impacts for her baby that have been linked to pesticide exposure in numerous studies, many conducted outside of this country’s heavily lobbied research apparatus. Because national organic standards prohibit use of genetically modified organisms, she purchases organic food for her child.
At the moment, the U.S. Senate is experiencing a major lobbying campaign from industry to make it harder to know when food is genetically modified. Alarmed by states’ passage of laws mandating such labeling, the industry is pressing the Senate to pass the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, also called the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act." The industry argues that consumers want consistent labeling across the nation, and the federal government should disallow mandatory labeling by states. This is a silly argument. My friend isn’t inconvenienced if consumers in Vermont have really good information about their food. She wants it too.
Economics theory bears on this question. Neoclassical economics is structured around three basic assumptions:
1. People have rational preferences between outcomes that can be identified and associated with values.
2. Individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits.
3. People act independently on the basis of full and relevant information.
Thus, free market exchanges assume that consumers will make the choice that best meets their needs if given full and relevant information. That’s what my friend would say too. So why should industry work so hard to suppress that information? If uniformity is the bugaboo, why not require full information about genetically modified seed nationwide?
The answer is obvious. Clearly, the industry is afraid that if consumers have full and relevant information, they will not buy their product. Nobody explains why government should be the tool for suppressing information so important to consumers’ health. It shouldn't.