TCS Daily

Con Game

By Jessica Melugin - November 4, 2002 12:00 AM

What do the residents of Oregon share in common with a corrupt African kleptocracy? We're about to find out.

Last week, the starving people of Zambia were told by their President that they could not eat GM food aid from America because it's "poison." This week, Oregonians will vote on Measure 27, a proposal for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods sold in the state. Oregon's Measure 27 would require that food or drink sold in the state for humans and animals must be labeled if ingredients amounting to over 0.1% of the product have been genetically modified. The decision by the people of Oregon will send an important message to those facing starvation in Zambia and elsewhere.

Natural Doesn't Mean Safe

Food labeling makes sense when addressing a health concern. Otherwise it generates confusion in the marketplace by placing a stigma on some foods and not others.

But the Food and Drug Administration - as well as all major international food and health bodies - have declared GM foods safe. For millennia technology has been employed to fight off pests, whether it's the application of tons of sulfur on organic crops, or inserting a single gene into a crop. The battle is ongoing, and with new technologies - from sulfur to DDT to newer pesticides and now GM techniques - we have increased food safety and helped feed billions of people. GM food doesn't deserve the stigma of mandatory labeling.

So why the push for labeling? The major proponent of Measure 27, Donna Harris, says she's not against GM foods. She says she just wants Oregonians to have the right to choose whether they, or their pets, consume the products.

Sounds reasonable, right? Perhaps in principle, but in practice that would mean labeling nearly everything. GM soybeans and GM corn are not separated at the source (except for organic products - that are labeled as such), which makes it impossible to say that corn or soybeans are GM free. These products - and numerous others that use GM technology - are found in most processed foods. So most food manufacturers would have to produce one set of labels for Oregon, and another for the rest of America and for export.

Is Measure 27 Unconstitutional?

Practically speaking, Measure 27 would likely result in fewer food choices and increased costs for Oregonians. So why do we care? Like most people, we don't live in Oregon. If residents want to scare themselves over safe products, it's certainly their right to do so.

But it's not their right to impose that choice on citizens of other states. These labeling regulations could spill over Oregon borders to affect food producers all over the country.

Some food suppliers will be forced to pull their products from Oregon shelves because not every company can afford a separate labeling process for products headed for the state. Fine. Cutting out one relatively sparsely populated state won't be the nail in the coffin for most companies.

But that won't be the end of the story. The success of Measure 27 will create momentum in other states. If one of those states is populous enough - like California, which is, in fact, considering similar regulations - food suppliers will no longer be able to afford to use the "exit" strategy. Walking away from that many customers will mean revenue losses possibly greater than the cost of labeling.

So, to be able to sell in California, and not incur the costs of two separate labeling standards, manufacturers will be forced to GM-label all of their products - even those sold in states with no laws mandating that they do so.

In that way, a few extreme states set the de facto regulatory policy for the entire nation. This is unfair to citizens and businesses located outside of Oregon; they have no voice in instituting these regulations, but have to bear the burden of their costs and unintended consequences.

The threat of states in effect exporting their regulatory regimes to the citizens of other states was considered so troublesome that the Founding Fathers wrote a specific precaution against it into the Constitution. The Commerce Clause prevents states from interfering with interstate commerce, a matter left exclusively to Congress. In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrote to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to express concern that Measure 27 would "impermissibly interfere with manufacturers' ability to market their products on a national basis" and, therefore, violate the Commerce Clause.

Zambia's Folly

The impact of labeling laws like Measure 27 won't stop at national borders either because it sends a dangerous messages to the international community. Europe has already declared a moratorium on eating GM foods and Europeans will use any excuse to block US produce. If GM foods become labeled in America, the rest of the world will feel pressure to follow suit, thus delaying the adoption of a technology that can save millions of lives in the developing world and provide safer food for everyone.

Zambia is already paying the price for western reticence. After two years of drought across Southern Africa, nations are short of food and hundreds of thousands of Zambians are close to starvation. America sent thousands of tons of food aid to help. But Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana said "In view of the current scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue... government has decided to base its decision not to accept GM foods in Zambia on the precautionary principle."

The Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa, and the rest of the Zambian elite - like wealthy Oregonians and Europeans - will not starve and so can afford to take "precautionary measures." But Zambia's citizens are not so fortunate. And it's becoming obvious that many of them are more concerned with starvation than GM technology - just last Wednesday, 500 tons of GM food aid was stolen from a warehouse in Lusaka. It's possible there will be riots when thousands of tons of food is removed this week from the country - aid workers literally taking food away from the mouths of starving children.

While Zambia's elite deserves most of the blame for this disaster, some fault lies with Europe. Zambia's President is petrified that if he accepts un-milled GM seed, which might be planted instead of eaten, his countrymen will grow an unknown amount of GM crops. Europe may then boycott Zambian exports. European precautionary folly is therefore at least partially responsible for death in Zambia.

If Oregon's Measure 27 passes - and it very well may - federal officials and affected food manufacturers will be the last defense against Oregon's policy creeping across the globe. So while citizens all over the world shouldn't be worried about GM food, they might have good reason to fear Oregon voters this month.

Jessica Melugin is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute's Federalism Project and Dr. Roger Bate is Director of the International Policy Network. Both are based in Washington DC.

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