Last week, Connecticut became the first American state to pass a bill requiring Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) products to be labeled. Due to threats from the nation’s largest producer of GMO seeds to sue any state that passes stand-alone labeling legislation, Connecticut’s bill will only go into effect once four other states pass similar legislation. The law requires no restriction, regulation, or taxation of GMO products beyond the requirement that goods containing such products be clearly labeled. Yet a large corporation has made it known that it will treat any effort to label GMO products as hostile. Given the ubiquity of GMO products in the United States, it is worthwhile to understand why a corporation would act this way.
Critical to this debate is an understanding of what GMO crops actually are. Plants have been modified through selective breeding and primitive cloning techniques for thousands of years but we have recently developed an understanding of genetics that has allowed for very fast changes to take place. Since the 1950’s, scientist have been infecting plant cells with viruses and bacteria selected to modify the DNA of the target cells. Such modifications are typically done to build a resistance to pests or chemicals that the plant will encounter. This technology has broadened the horizons of traditional horticulture by allowing scientist to breed plants that are highly productive yet very prone to pest problems and then modifying the organism to control such negative qualities. This can be done by changing the DNA of a cell so that the plant will become unappealing to a pest or by instilling a resistance to a pest controlling chemical. The latter option is favored by the largest holder of GMO patents, Monsanto. This company routinely engineers varieties of corn that are resistant to Round-Up, a chemical control mechanism also produced by Monsanto, so that the organism and chemical can be sold and used in tandem.
As 98% of soybeans and 90% of corn grown in the United States are GMOs engineered by Monsanto, it becomes clear that this company is doing a great deal of business in terms of seed and chemical pesticide. They have accomplished this despite receiving negative attention related to suspected anti-trust violations, predatory anti-small–farmer practices, sweeping libel lawsuits, and furthering the large scale use of toxins in the American food system. This may be why critics have dubbed the recent federal laws prohibiting DOJ intervention, the ‘Monsanto Protection Act.’
There is no doubt that companies like Monsanto have allowed the American food system to evolve in astounding ways over the past three decades. Every year brings a new record crop, an achievement touted by Monsanto as proof positive of the effectiveness of GMO crops in addressing the world’s food shortage. It is worthwhile to note, however that many developing nations that have banned GMO seeds have also reported record yields in recent years. The necessity of GMO crops in modern agriculture is itself contentious with ample support for either side.
Given the high profile of Monsanto and the continuing debate surrounding chemicals like round-up, it is no surprise that GMO crops remain controversial. But how does labeling figure into this debate? Critics argue that labeling GMO crops is not only unnecessary but will negatively impact farmers by steering consumers away from GMO crops as well. Labels are seen as superfluous because the FDA has stated that there is no physical difference between GMO crops and non-GMO crops. This seems contrary to the opinion of Monsanto’s legal team which routinely targets farmers who may be growing patented GMO seed without leasing rights to the crop. With no physical difference between two types of corn, such lawsuits would not be possible and related patents would be invalid. The view that consumers will threaten farmers by choosing not to purchase GMO crops runs contrary to free market ideals of choice. In a capitalist model, farmers would respond to such a trend by producing non-GMO crops for consumers to purchase thus meeting demand with a supply. Most large scale commercial farms are financed by a handful of corporations, including Monsanto. It seems ironic that these businessmen would shy from free-market demands but it is understandable that they would be interested in protectivist legislation.
Legislators in Connecticut have taken a step toward allowing consumers to choose. There is nothing in their bill that will have a direct negative impact on companies like Monsanto. GMO producers that are seeking to overturn or discourage such legislation are essentially threatened by the prospect of consumers choosing to not purchase their product. This is a completely separate issue from the effectiveness or sustainability of GMO agronomics. Efforts to prevent such a choice are conspicuous attempts to monopolize the American food system. It is unfortunate that such large and powerful companies do not have enough faith in the value of their products to encourage consumers to choose whether or not to purchase them and a telling indicator of the status of American anti-trust enforcement in the era of “too big to fail.”