Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The GMO labeling debate continued: It’s about the ‘benchmark’

By David Zilberman

I was amazed by the response to my previous post and I will try address some of the main points.

I found three main themes repeating through the comments. First, it is clear that there are many people who are concerned about the side effects of GMOs and dont trust biotech companies that produce them and the governments that regulate them. These people should vote for the proposition to label GMOs. This is a democracy, after all. I suspect that there are others that may be slightly concerned about GMOs or are indifferent, but they are not aware of the environmental and socio-economic benefits of GMOs and the likely negative implication of the labeling requirement. This is the group that I hope to convince.

Second, do we need labeling in principle? Of course the public has a right to know. But the key question is the benchmark for requiring labeling. Should it be based on findings of modern science or on other criteria? My grandmother would have liked that kosher would be the base line for labeling and anything else should be labeled non-kosher or even another term with a slightly negative slant. Others may like halal, organic or pesticide-free to be their benchmark, and everything else would need to have a label. However, non-kosher is the current norm (or benchmark) and we have labeling for kosher, halal, organic, etc., So I would vote against the labeling of GMOs because in my assessment, the social and environmental cost of having labeling GMO as the baseline (norm) would greatly outweigh the benefits. The big debate is what would be the role of GMOs and other molecular biological techniques in our food future. I think that as long as we have a good regulatory system and sound safety rules are met, they should define the baseline. Labeling GMOs has the potential to marginalize it and reduce the investment in research, development and introduction of new products and slow the advancement of the frontier of knowledge.

A third theme among the responses is the stereotyping. My motivation for taking this a pro-GMO position was questioned, which is part of a tendency of some to view proponents of GMO as people motivated by money while proponents of organic farming are idealists. The reality is more complex. Many pursue a career in science to make the world a better place and find GMOs to be a vital tool for the greater good. Conversely, organic farming can be a lucrative business, especially in California. Another stereotype is that people that care about the environment should be against GMOs. Again, that is simplistic. Personally, I envision a transition for a more diversified farming systems, less reliance on chemicals and smaller environment footprint relying on a range of modern tools of science, including GMOs.

The issue that we face is not freedom of choice, we are all for it. Rather we have to decide what will be the benchmark for labeling requirements. I am convinced that the cost of requiring labeling GMOs to society and the environment will outweigh the benefits and therefore am against it.

To have a better understanding of the impact of GMOs, I recommend the following literature:

NRC (National Research Council) Report Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the U.S. which can be found at:


as well as the survey by Matin Qaim, "The economics of genetically modified crops." Annual Review of Resource Economics 1(1), which can be found at


Articles in Choices Magazine: http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.php?article=127

Theme Overview: Genetically Engineered Crops and U.S. Agricultural Sustainability

Environmental Opportunities and Challenges of Genetically-Engineered Crops

The Economic Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops

Social Equity and the Genetically Engineered Crops Controversy

Can Genetically Engineered and Organic Crops Coexist?

What Drives Academic Bioscientists: Money or Values?