The New York Times recently published a front-page story titled “Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Food” that led with a bit of consumer guerrilla warfare.
“GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.—On a recent sunny morning at the Big Y grocery here, Cynthia LaPier parked her cart in the cereal aisle. With a glance over her shoulder and a quick check of the ingredients, she plastered several boxes with hand-designed stickers from a roll in her purse. ‘Warning,’ they read. ‘May Contain GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms).’ ”
The story was accompanied by a tight shot of LaPier’s homemade sticker—black type on a bright yellow circle—on the front page and a large photo of LaPier in action on page 18. The Times’s website has a video of LaPier explaining why she’s resorted to this activity and footage of her labeling cereal boxes.
The story appeared in the Friday, May 25, issue of the Times, and I read it at home that evening. I clipped the story and brought it to work on Tuesday. I spent much of that morning wandering around the Internet tracking down sources identified in the original article and following the inevitable links to one source after another. One article on genetically modified food leads to a remarkable number of threads on how various actors work to shape public opinion on complex scientific and technological topics and how those topics and efforts are reported on in the media.
The Times story is a well-reported, well-written article on an important and complex topic. I’m ambivalent on whether genetically modified foods should be labeled as such. I think salmon genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as normal salmon are creepy and I’d just as soon not eat them, although I can’t summon a rational argument to support my reservations. I know enough about molecular biology and the human digestive system to be completely comfortable eating corn carrying the Bt gene or products made from soybeans from glyphosate-resistant plants. And the idea that beef fed genetically modified corn could somehow be a threat to human health or that animals eating genetically engineered alfalfa should not be considered “organic” is just silly.
Still, the notion that people have a right to know what’s in their food so they can make informed choices is attractive. If only that were the motivation behind the nascent label-it-yourself movement the Times seems to celebrate in its approving coverage of LaPier. (The story does note, very late, that LaPier’s actions could be illegal.)
The choice of LaPier to highlight is interesting, though. Her little yellow sticker is not confrontational. Not so the sticker associated with the Label It Yourself campaign. At their website you can download a sheet with 24 copies of the symbol reproduced on this page that you can print on “1.5- × 1.5-inch print-to-the-edge square label sheets” and take to your local supermarket to “LABEL THEM YOURSELF.” I think we can all agree that a skull and cross-corncobs goes somewhat beyond neutral consumer information and crosses the border into advocacy. And the Times reporters knew about Label It Yourself, pointing to the organization’s Facebook page in their story. I find it curious that they chose to focus on a sticker that is neutral and nonconfrontational and ignore a sticker that obviously carries an agenda.
In fact, the labeling debate is largely about efforts by activists to undermine the use of genetic engineering in agriculture in the U.S., much the way it has been blocked in Europe. The Times story duly notes this point of view but focuses primarily on consumers and organic farming interests.
As I pointed out in last week’s issue, communicating science to the public is difficult.
Thanks for reading.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.