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KBIA's Harvest Desk covers food and agriculture issues in Missouri and beyond. The desk is a collaboration between KBIA and Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. The desk is headed by reporter Kristofor Husted.

GMO labeling becomes ‘proxy’ for consumer preferences

Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

The Chipotle Cultivate Festival had it all: an indie pop band on stage, long lines at the beer booths, folks hanging out on a hot summer day.

Sort of like a Grateful Dead concert, only with free burritos.

But the Chipotle Cultivate events, with four held across the country this summer, aims to do a little more than just than just the classic summertime music festival. Billed as offering “food, ideas and music,” the festival offers a chance to “learn a free burrito” after going through four exhibits.

Chipotle, the Mexican chain whose slogan is “food with integrity,” was the first national company to cook solely with ingredients free from genetic-engineering.

Lined up at the “GMO Experience” exhibit was Julie Godchaux-Ilineman, of Kansas City, wearing a flowered garland in her hair.  She supports labeling food products on whether they contain GMOs, as she had studied it for a high school report, and likens it to a problem from the past.

“About like, cigarettes,” she said. “Everyone thought it was good then all of a sudden we realized it was bad and nobody did anything until they started putting the warnings on the packaging and more people became more aware of it.”

The fight over food containing genetically modified ingredients is at a fever pitch. The U.S. House recently passed a bill limiting labels for GMO food, but the policy debate is not over and includes a little science, lots of money and a food system under fire.

Surveys show the majority of consumers want their food labeled with GMO information, as much as 93 percent, according to this New York Times poll. That’s even though the world’s leading scientists say GMOs are safe.

“There is a lot of confusion and it’s not accidental that there’s confusion,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, who sponsored the recently passed bill that bars states from passing laws that require GMO labels and instead offers a voluntary federal system.

“There is a group of folks out there who have been trying to tell consumers these foods were unsafe for a long time,” Pompeo said. “They’ve had massive media campaigns to do that. It’s been in their own economic self-interest to do that.”

In fact, both sides of the GMO labeling debate have economic interests, said Carmen Bain, an associate sociology professor at Iowa State University who has been studying the issue.

“Both sides, all sides, however you like to think about it, have political and economic interests,” she said. “They have skin in the game.”

Genetically modified organisms were commercialized two decades ago. Most processed foods contain those ingredients, especially anything with corn, soybeans or sugar beets.

But the issue became a popular political cause a few years ago, with states lining up to pass laws that would require the labels. Several failed at the ballot box. Vermont, however, became the first state in the country to pass a bill and it will go into effect next July.

That’s exactly what Pompeo’s bill is aimed at: trying to pre-empt the state laws and make labeling GMOs voluntary. Monsanto, the global biotech giant, along with big food and beverage companies like Pepsico and Kraft spent millions on lobbying the anti-labeling bill, as the companies fear the labels could keep hurt profits.

Those interests also contributed more than three times in campaign donations to lawmakers than the other side, according to Maplight, which tracks money in politics. Those opposing the bill included environmental, organic and health interests.

Still, the issue isn’t really about GMOs, Bain said.  Her research shows that GMO labeling has become what social scientists call a “wicked problem,” one that is inherently contradictory and can’t be solved through scientific fact.

“GMOs is really a proxy for many of the broader social and economic and political concerns that they have, in particular about the agri-food system,” Bain said, adding that the concerns include corporate control and industrial-sized food production.

Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group, which does consumer research for food companies, said GMOs have become a buzzword for what people want. 

“When we talk about what’s the No. 1 trend or long-term change in what’s going on in food culture today, we found over the years that consumers are really looking for products that appear or perceive to be fresh, real and less processed,” Demeritt said.

A Hartman survey showed that while most consumers say they favor GMO labeling, it also showed that many are confused about what genetically modified food really is and what crops might be involved.

The Pompeo bill, passed by a large margin, now moves to the U.S. Senate. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he expects to take action on the bill this fall.

The Obama administration remained neutral on the anti-labeling bill. The White House also pointed out that there’s already a government-sanctioned program for labeling food as non-GMO: if you buy anything with the USDA certified “organic” stamp, you will be eating GMO-free food.   

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.