This article was written in response to a seminar given by Linda Fisher, Chief Sustainability Officer of DuPont, in an EDGE Seminar on Mar. 11, 2015 at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or DuPont.
Linda Fisher, VP of Safety, Health and Environment and Chief Sustainability Officer at DuPont, recently visited the EDGE Seminar to provide insight on the role that DuPont plays in applying biotechnology to the food and agricultural industries. Chief among her insights was the chasm between the “massively confused middle”—who believe that GMOs have negative environmental and safety impacts—and expert opinions about the benefits of GMOs. Using the emotionally-charged debate over food labeling as an illustration of this divide, Fisher argued that mandating that foods containing GMOs be labeled would exacerbate, rather than minimize, this chasm. While I agree with Fisher that GMOs are important tools in addressing environmental degradation and food scarcity, I argue that mandatory food labeling will actually help to close this gap in consumer understanding.
DuPont’s current stance is that food labeling should be voluntary. This position undermines its brand equity as well as the science that confirms that GMOs provide actual environmental and social benefits. Though Fisher argues that this position mediates between the public’s “right to know” and potential for special interest groups to co-opt labeling as grounds for distorting “real” versus “perceived” risks from GMOs, DuPont’s decision to funnel $4.6 million to fight legislation mandating food labeling in Oregon and its current battle with Vermont imply secrecy and dishonesty rather than a desire to serve the public’s interest. If, as DuPont’s critics argue, GMOs genuinely don’t cause environmental or health-related harm, why should food manufacturers care if their foods are labeled to denote this fact? Mandatory GMO food labeling would increase transparency, helping to build public trust and eroding the misperception that GMOs are strictly harmful.
Consumers want transparency, labeling
DuPont’s position is also increasingly at odds with current market trends, which indicate signs of increased consumer self-education and a desire to understand where food comes from and how it is manufactured. Consumers are demanding honesty and leveraging their buying power in ways they’ve never done before, and the food and agriculture industries must align with this paradigm shift to avoid further image erosion. As a recent Triplepundit article aptly noted, “The use of marketing power and political campaign contributions by conventional food corporations are, at best, slowing the inevitable.” The fact that 27 states have introduced food labeling legislation, and reports that 93% of consumers support food labeling, underscore this steady march towards inevitability.
Endorsing mandated food labeling also paves a pathway for science and research to assume a greater role in public discourse, helping to bridge the gap. Fisher observed that “NGOs are opening or closing doors for us.” DuPont’s willingness to embrace food labeling signals that it wants that door to be open. Assuming the most ideal circumstance, this transparency will encourage NGOs, organic food companies and consumers to adopt less antagonistic approaches towards GMOs and embrace increasingly more objective stances that involve science and empirical evidence. Michael Specter’s New Yorker article “Seeds of Doubt” highlighted this potential for shifting mindsets.
Labels do not increase GMO concerns
Opponents of mandated labeling rely on a litany of arguments to build their case, including the belief that labeling food punishes manufacturers by igniting false alarm over the safety of GMOs and decreases sales. In reality, evidence points to the contrary. Use of GMOs is ubiquitous, and up to 75 percent of processed foods contain them in some form or another, making it difficult for the average consumer to boycott the products altogether. Numerous studies have also demonstrated that food labels do not lead to increased concerns about GMOs.
A second common argument is that mandated labeling significantly raises prices due to increased labeling and production costs. But again, the evidence reflects that this fear is unfounded. In one study, findings from researchers at ECONorthwest concluded that the consumers should only expect to pay an average of $2.30 more per year or roughly $.06 per day. Similarly, a study performed by the U.K.-based Alliance for Natural Health drew similar conclusions, noting that “consumers will likely see no increases in prices” on account of mandated labeling.
Ultimately, the scientific community and companies like DuPont have the empirical evidence to prove that GMOs do not pose a significant health risk to consumers and can in fact address a number of pressing environmental and food-scarcity related issues. However, this is all meaningless if the chasm is maintained and the public remains in the “massively confused middle.” Mandatory food labeling is the necessary step in ending this fight.