Genetic Modification Bill Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Andy Monserud

It’s October, and even in this odd-numbered year, election season is upon us. And this year, we’re actually being encouraged to care. While odd years don’t usually have much at stake for Whitman students, the past few weeks have seen a rise in get-out-the-vote campaigning, from posters plastered on the walls of academic buildings to the guy who handed me a voter-registration form while I walked into my dorm on Friday.

Much of this rise in voter recruitment enthusiasm stems not from the handful of Walla Walla city and county offices up for grabs this year, but from Initiative Measure 522, a bill added to the ballot this year that would require labels on some genetically modified foods. The bill resembles similar ballot initiatives proposed in California last year and Oregon in 2002, neither of which passed. A number of Whitman students have shown a strong interest in the campaign, but the bill is all but toothless. Though it has high symbolic value as a fight against Big Agro, this battle was poorly picked. Genetic modification is a losing issue for the opponents of Monsanto and its ilk, and I-522 is hardly a fight worth picking.

First, there’s no evidence that genetic modification is harmful, so labeling genetically modified food is a difficult position to defend. Excessive and unnecessary regulation is a hot topic these days, and while the Tea Partiers in Congress continue to humiliate themselves with the backfiring let’s-shut-down-the-government ploy of last week, voters are still wary of involving the government where it doesn’t need to be (in no small part because of its recent show of incompetence). The bill doesn’t even cover GMOs comprehensively. Exceptions include alcohol, animals that have not been genetically engineered but have eaten or been injected with genetically engineered materials, and food processed with genetically engineered materials. (The full text of the bill can be found online at the Office of the Secretary of State’s website, for those interested in learning more.) Not that this matters, because it’s not harmful anyway, but if the objective is to encourage competition from organic farmers, we could at least go all the way with it.

Should the bill actually pass, the proposed labeling might discourage purchase of genetically modified food, but only among those who can afford to look at food labels in the first place. Frankly, affluent people already consume most of the organic food in the United States. Companies like Monsanto make most of their money off of those people who can’t afford to care about things that a) cost more money and b) don’t impact their health. And they’re right not to care. GMOs have thus far proved entirely harmless to humans. Why refuse to buy something simply because it makes good use of promising technology? The baby is going out with the bath water. What’s more, Big Agro will undoubtedly survive this fairly insignificant issue; we can’t seem to get rid of the bath water.

While I’m all about fighting Big Agro and its monopolistic grip on American food production and consumption, genetic modification simply doesn’t have the teeth to make much difference in the American food economy. What Washington –– and the entire United States –– needs to address is not a generally harmless practice that allows us to make food cheaply and efficiently. Instead of directly attacking the monopolistic forces lobbying against this largely symbolic legislation, Washington’s food-reforming legislators are using a passive, ineffective and somewhat underhanded method that makes them look like so many complaining hippies, rather than coming out to attack the all-encompassing conglomerates that own American agribusiness directly.

Why not take on the issue directly and demand better inspection of food processing plants, higher standards for processing of meat and subsidies to decrease the cost of organic foods? All these would have a positive impact on the food we consume, and no beating around the bush. The food industry has found one efficient way to get more food without endangering consumers. Let’s let them have it, and instead focus on the stuff we should actually worry about.