Image RemovedEver since it became clear that Vermont’s law for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would actually go into force this summer, the big question has been how many food companies would choose to label their products and how many would choose simply not to sell in Vermont.

There is a third choice which purveyor of canned fruits and vegetables, Del Monte Foods, announced recently. The company will eliminate all genetically engineered ingredients from its foods, obviating the need for special labeling. This won’t be too difficult since there are very few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables.

While the Vermont law is huge victory for the proponents of labels, the U.S. Congress could still pre-empt state labeling laws, something it failed to do earlier this year. But as more and more of the public demands to know which products have so-called genetically modified organisms or GMOs in them and as the number of products on grocery shelves with non-GMO verified labels increases, growers and processors may have no choice but to acquiesce. They may be forced by circumstances either to label their products (or automatically be suspected of trying to hide something for not doing so) or to eliminate GMO crops and ingredients for fear of losing customers regardless of what happens in Congress or in other states.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books on risk, explains why this is so in a draft chapter of an upcoming book called Skin in the Game. His investigation begins with why nearly every packaged drink in the United States is labeled certified kosher.

The answer is surprisingly simple and leads to counterintuitive conclusions about how certain practices spread far and wide. Even though people adhering to kosher food consumption represent only three-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population, those people are spread throughout the United States rather than being confined to any geographic area. In such a case it is impractical to segregate packaged drinks that are certified kosher from those that are not. It’s simply more cost-effective to make them all kosher.

This phenomenon has to do with one obvious and simple truth: Kosher eaters will not eat or drink non-kosher products. But non-kosher eaters have no problem consuming kosher products. One group has a strong and uncompromising preference, and the other group doesn’t really care. This, Taleb explains, is how tiny minorities can enforce standards on the rest of the population.

This holds true if the cost differential between two types of the same product are minimal. Where the differential is substantial, as is the case with organic versus nonorganic foods, companies do, in fact, set up two food streams for customers.

Taleb points to the transition from manual-shifting vehicles to automatic shifting vehicles. This didn’t occur initially because people preferred automatics. Rather, both those who preferred automatics and those who preferred manual-shifting vehicles could drive automatics. So, the small minority of those wanting automatic transmissions won the day.

As more and more people come to prefer non-GMO food, it will simply become easier to entertain mixed groups by assuring everyone that all the food and drink available is non-GMO. Bloomberg reports that candymaker Hershey recently announced that it is now buying only cane sugar–which means the company no longer uses sugar derived from genetically engineered sugar beets. The company’s website lists GMO-free products and promises more to come.

It turns out that a stubborn minority is overcoming a broader majority that is content to eat non-GMO food if that is the preference of the minority.

This is the crux of the problem for companies selling GMO seeds and foods. They can talk all they want about the so-called rejection of science by consumers. In the end, food companies and farmers are obliged to sell people what they want; and where the preference of a minority is very strong, the majority will simply acquiesce.

As Taleb observes:

Big Ag (the large agricultural firms) did not realize that this is the equivalent of entering a game in which one needed to not just to win more points than the adversary, but win ninety-seven percent of the total points just to be safe.

The fight over labeling products containing GMOs has been one of the most potent forces in changing consumer preferences. We will soon find out whether there are now enough stubborn consumers insisting on non-GMO foods to bring the rest of the population with them.

In order to reverse the tide, the GMO industry would have to persuade at least as large a group of stubborn people not merely to tolerate GMO foods, but to insist on eating them. It’s hard to see how the industry is going to do that if it continues to oppose labeling and if, as it insists, GMO foods are no different in taste and nutrition than non-GMO foods.

How did the industry end up in this fix? In the early 1990s when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was reviewing the safety of GMO crops, FDA scientists wrote that GMO crops involve unique risks and recommended that the crops be tested for safety in the same way that new drugs are. The cost of doing this would be enormous for each genetically engineered plant variety and would result in long delays before such varieties could be sold and grown.

The industry had another plan. It got the Bush administration to place one of the industry’s own lawyers in the FDA and created a position for him that allowed him to stifle the FDA scientists’ concerns. The industry lobbied heavily and showered politicians with campaign cash. The FDA abandoned its own scientists’ recommendation and ruled that GMO crops are "substantially equivalent" to non-GMO crops. (This makes industry accusations that those who oppose GMOs are anti-science all the more a galling.)

But, by insisting that there is essentially no difference between GMO and non-GMO foods, the industry made what will turn out to be one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time. For if you insist to consumers for more than two decades that your products are no different from your competitors’ products, how can you later come back and say that they are different. And, if you say that they are different, you risk serious regulation of your product by the FDA. So, if there is no difference, then consumers have little basis for preferring GMO foods which the industry admits generally have no advantages* when it comes to taste, nutrition, appearance or shelf life. Otherwise, they would surely be touting these advantages on store shelves and in advertisements.

With the industry insisting for so long that there are no differences between GMO foods and non-GMO foods, it is now stuck in a messaging loop from which it cannot escape. That loop will make it ever more likely that consumers will just go with the flow. And that flow is decidedly in the direction of the stubborn minority who want nothing to do with GMO products.


*The industry does claim that GMO crops reduce the use of pesticides, reduce the need to till the soil for weed control, and can be more profitable for farmers than non-GMO strains. All these may be selling points for farmers, but have little impact on the preferences of consumers. Claims about increased yields have been largely debunked. Almost all of the increase in agricultural yields has come from traditional breeding and better agricultural practices.

Claims about increases in nutrition are usually couched in terms of what crops are in development rather than available today. The one notable exception is so-called Golden Rice which produces beta-carotene, a pre-cursor to Vitamin A, often deficient in Asian diets dependent on rice. A simpler fix would be to encourage a greater variety of crops to include vegetables which are rich in beta-carotene rather than encourage more extensive monocrop farming. Simpler still would be the free or low-cost distribution of cheap and widely available beta-carotene supplements.

Moreover, since GMO crops require no special testing to determine their safety, there is no definitive proof that they are safe. To simply state that foods containing GMO ingredients have been eaten for more than two decades and everything seems to be fine is not the same as long-term feeding studies using control groups done by unbiased, neutral researchers using widely accepted procedures that meet rigorous drug testing standards. Instead, we are all guinea pigs in a worldwide uncontrolled experiment. My main concern about GMO safety, however, is not the possible danger to human health, but rather the potential to create catastrophic failures in the agricultural system via hidden risks.

Still, all of this is beside my point in the piece above. Apparently, the GMO industry does not believe in the free market and consumer choice. Consumers are increasingly telling the industry that they don’t want GMO foods. Does the industry wish to legislate that we all be tricked into consuming them without our knowledge and consent? Lack of transparency has been the strategy from the onset, and it doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

Image: Food poster from the United States Food Administration. Via Wikimedia Commons.