Finding the Middle Ground in Debate Over GMO Regulation

Should government policy be to favor or oppose GMOs? No.


Credit: micadew / photo on flickr

Earlier this week I spoke at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, thanks to an invitation from the school's Federalist Society student chapter.

My talk, "Moving Beyond Shrillness: Finding the Middle Ground in GMO Regulation," focused not on ending public debate over GMOs. The marketplace of ideas, I noted, is strong enough to withstand America's deep-seated differences of opinion over the genetic traits of sugar beets, corn, soy, and alfalfa.

Rather, I focused on the contentious debate over regulation of genetically modified crops and foods that contain them.

I began the talk by asking the students, faculty, and others present whether government policy should favor or oppose GMOs. Many students at the law school, which places a strong emphasis on intellectual property law, raised their hands in support of government policies that favor GMOs. Only one student raised her hand in support of government policies that oppose GMOs

One faculty member—as faculty members are wont to do—suggested that I was asking the wrong question.

To a point, he was correct. The problem wasn't with the question, though, but with the two answers I provided.

"Should government policy be to favor GMOs or to oppose GMOs?" I asked. I then advanced my PowerPoint slide to show what I believe is the correct answer: "No."

In other words, government policy should be neither to favor GMOs nor to oppose GMOs. This is the only fair position. Our current condition, though, broken as it is, finds a mismatched host of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that clearly favor GMOs, or that clearly oppose GMOs.

I then described a long list of proposed and existing rules that do just that.

The federal government is deeply involved in promoting GMO crops and foods, I noted. Farm subsidies send billions of dollars to farmers who plant—overwhelmingly—GMO crops. The USDA National School Lunch Program and other USDA commodity programs then buy up those GMO crops and animals that were fed those GMO crops.

In Congress, the Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act (the so-called "Dark Act") has threatened to create a vast new USDA bureaucracy that would undermine important and successful private labeling certification bodies like the Non-GMO Project, while the Farmer Assurance Provision (the so-called "Monsanto Protection Act") provided GMO farmers with insidious (and unconstitutional) protections.

While the federal government sides with GMO, states, counties, and cities around the country have largely taken the opposite tack. Vermont's unconstitutional mandatory GMO-labeling law, set to take effect on July 1—but which I am on record predicting a federal court will halt, lest I lose a bet on that date—is one terrible example. Awful bans on planting GMO crops have been adopted in counties in Oregon and Hawaii. Thankfully, each of these laws has been challenged in court.

Despite this heated climate, there's some evidence that rhetoric over GMOs might be cooling.

Longtime Monsanto critic Tom Philpott recently toured the company's headquarters in St. Louis. The Boston Globe panned a proposed GMO-labeling law in Massachusetts. And just this week, Monsanto head Hugh Grant spoke to CNN Money about his hopes the debate over GMOs will become less polarized.

I hope so, too. But I think—both as someone both who isn't in the business of selling GMO seeds and who is largely indifferent to GMO crops and foods—the more important issue is a legal and regulatory one.

I don't care if shrill voices rein in the debate over GMOs. I've seen that they carry the day in debates over dietary fat, raw milk, animal welfare, food trucks, and pretty much every other issue about which I write. They key to the GMO debate—just as with those other issues—is then to confine discussion to the marketplace of ideas. We needn't end debate over GMOs. Instead, we need to eliminate the subsidies, protections, bans, mandatory-labeling laws, and other rules which are the unjustifiable responses to shrill advocates on both sides of the debate.

With GMOs, we've mucked this up badly. Anti-GMO farmers and eaters feel under siege by companies that supply GMO seeds and foods and who influence federal lawmakers and agencies. Companies that supply GMO seeds and foods feel under siege by anti-GMO activists who influence state and local lawmakers.

What is this middle ground in GMO regulation, I asked, and how do we get there? The middle ground is fairness. In the interest of getting there, lawmakers must stop responding to the shrillest voices among us.