Congress Says ‘Ignorant Americans’ Will Reject GMOs
Policy + Politics

Congress Says ‘Ignorant Americans’ Will Reject GMOs

iStockphoto/Anthony Brown

In a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, the majority of committee members, including four expert witnesses, agreed that American consumers should be denied GMO labels. Why? Because they are ignorant. 

One of the primary conclusions of the hearing was that GMOs, also known as genetically modified organisms, have been a major success, helping people to eat more nutritiously and decrease the use of pesticides. “They are perfectly safe and they are helping to feed the world,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), who chaired the committee hearing. 

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Most of those on the subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture agreed that there’s a communication issue between farmers, who benefit from biotechnology, and consumers, who don’t quite understand them when they go the grocery store. 

"There is a large and growing number of consumers who stigmatize GMOs in the U.S.," said Cornell University Professor Dr. David Just, who is the co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. "I really worry that labeling does more harm than good, that it leads too many people away from it and it diminishes the market for GMOs that are the solution to a lot of the problems we face."

Members of Congress had some direct—albeit, often rhetorical—questions about how Americans perceive these labels. 

“What is the biggest drawback,” asked Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL)? “Is it the ignorance of what the product is, just from a lack of education?” 

“It is ignorance of the product,” replied Dr. Just, “a general skepticism of anything they eat that is too processed or treated in some way that they don’t quite understand.” 

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Indeed, many of the witnesses pointed to widespread misinformation about GMOs. “A lot of questions that people have and a lot of hesitations that they have really is from a lack of knowledge in regard to where food actually comes from,” said one of the expert witnesses, Dr. Bolden-Tiller, who is an assistant professor as Tuskegee University.  

“What we have here is some problems with society and communication aspect of genetic modification,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), arguing that consumers are not keeping up with technology—and thus, are not really aware. 

And if they are already unaware, why invest money to try to educate them when they can educate themselves? 

The panel’s answer? Labeling GMO products so that consumers know what they are eating is for the most part, entirely unnecessary. “People talk about they have the right to know, and that’s why they need a label, a mandatory label on GMO products,” said Joanna Lidback, owner and dairy farmer at the Wheeler Mountain Farm, who was one of the witnesses. “The information is already out there. They don’t need to wait for a label. They can go and do their own research and find it.” 

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Ben and Jerry’s Co-Founder Jerry Greenfield takes issue. Standing outside the U.S. Capitol, he made the point that consumers deserve to know what’s in their food and that labeling GMOs is an easy, cheap step. 

"This idea that consumers will be scared away—the label will be a very simple thing, a few words on a container saying something like 'may be produced with genetic engineering.' It's not scary," said Greenfield in an interview with the Huffington Post

In the meantime, it looks like Washington is not working in Greenfield’s favor. Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) are supporting a measure to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The potential legislation would not only permit states to not label GMO products, but also to allow them to be labeled “100 percent natural” or “naturally grown,” according to The Huffington Post. 

Congressman Pompeo told Politico that he is hoping a hearing on the measure will take place in September. 

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