Mark Lynas has a knack for dropping bombshells at normally snoozy industry conferences.
Last January at an agriculture conference, the British environmentalist and writer made international news (and outraged fellow activists) by announcing that, after years of opposing genetically modified crops, he now supported them.
And Tuesday, at a food industry meeting near O’Hare, the invited speaker, let loose with another whopper. He told the group—many from the soybean industry— that they needed to support federal efforts to label GMOs (GM or GE) in the U.S.
Big food and agriculture groups have long battled labeling efforts, including a pending bill in Illinois and a ballot initiative scheduled for vote next month in Washington state. So Lynas, who changed his presentation late Monday night, knew the statement would ruffle feathers.
“I’m not here to tell them what they want to hear,” Lynas told WBEZ after his speech at the Food Integrity Summit in Rosemont. “I’m here to challenge them and provoke them, which is why I told them today that they have to stop opposing GMO labeling. I believe people do have the right to know what’s in their food, and they as an industry have a responsibility and a mandate to deliver on that.
“The key issue here is transparency,” said Lynas, who posted his reasoning on his website Tuesday. “People are scared because they are not told what [food] they are in and it’s a ridiculous situation. Because the industry hides behind the fact that these products aren’t labeled they can’t sell biotechnology on its real merits and its merits are real. There’s a big reduction in pesticides and a big increase in productivity. But they can’t make that case because they can’t tell them that they are being used.”
Several attendees were still digesting Lynas’ words during a coffee break after his speech.
“I understand what he means about familiarity breeding acceptance, and I think it is really compelling and something I’m going to need to think about a little bit more before I make a decision,” said Susanne Zilberfarb of the Delaware Maryland Soybean Board. “It’s sort of a reversal of what agriculture and the food companies out there have been working towards and so it’s an interesting strategy. It wasn’t what I expected. I’ll tell you that.”
When asked if this would mean a complete about-face for the food and agriculture industry, Jane Ade Stevens of the Indiana Soybean Alliance said: “I don’t know that the industry has accepted that strategy but that is what he was suggesting we might want to look at. I think everything is on the table as far as the way you look at those things.”
Late Tuesday afternoon Tom Helscher of Monsanto, a major U.S. producer of GM seeds and complementary pesticides, said that he was not familiar enough with Lynas’ comments to respond. But he added, “we respect that people can have different views on this topic.” Helscher directed WBEZ to Monsanto’s online statement saying, “We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risk.”
Some GMO labeling supporters seemed pleased by the development.
“I think this goes to show that you can be pro-labeling and pro-GE,” said Scott Faber executive director of the national Just Label It campaign which seeks federal GMO labeling. “Labeling is not a referendum on the technology but on a consumer’s right to know. ...The more industry fights labeling, the more they create the impression that they have something to hide. Denying consumers the right to know does more to stigmatize the technology than anything that any GE opponents could do.”
Faber says that, although Lynas is the highest profile labeling defector in the pro-GMO ranks, he’s not alone.
Faber says that he believes many in the pro-GMO camp “figure that the fight against labeling is more costly than labeling. The loss of confidence, brand reputation and consumer loyalty are far more costly to the food industry than simply putting the words ‘may contain GE ingredients.’ “
He notes that the Just Label It chairman, former Stonyfield yogurt chief, Gary Hirshberg, has frequently noted that his objections to current laws are less about the technology than the right to know.
David Gumpert, a food policy journalist and author of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights,” sees Lynas’ statement as the start of a sea change among industry labeling opponents.
"GMO labeling laws have already passed in CT and VT, and came close in CA,” Gumpert wrote in an emailed statement to WBEZ. “Labeling has been proposed in other states, plus Whole Foods Market is committed to labeling all its products. A tidal wave is forming behind labeling and labeling opponents are beginning to see the wave and deciding they should be getting on board. I expect more large food companies (who have been nearly unanimous against labeling) will begin voluntarily labeling as more consumers express the need to be informed."
Outspoken farmer Joel Salatin, who was featured in the film “Food Inc.” and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” opposes GMOs but also sees federal labeling as government meddling. He was skeptical of Lynas’ statement.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said to WBEZ Tuesday, “because these guys are sharp as can be and they are seeing that they can turn this on its head by saying go ahead and label.”
Less than two hours after Lynas finished his presentation, Center for Food Integrity CEO Charlie Arnot took the floor to report the results of a CFI survey on what causes consumers to lose trust in their food suppliers and even sparks outrage.
“What the public told us was ‘if you want us to trust you, even though you’ve changed in size and scale, you need to be more transparent and share more information’,” Arnot said. “...To me those are some good guidelines and we hope that will provide a roadmap for those in the food system to follow.”
On the other side of the spectrum, activists were saying basically the same thing.
“There will be growing support for labeling,” Faber predicted. “That is not because of concern about the technology necessarily. It is really part of a larger trend—consumers in general want to know a lot more about their food.”