Politics of Poverty

Could a new GMO disclosure rule open the door to a transparency revolution in the food industry?

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Non-GMO labels on products in a US grocer. (Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)

Congress just gave us the opportunity to find out.

Last month, Congress passed a controversial new law requiring food companies to disclose whether their products contain genetically modified ingredients. After years of intense lobbying and campaigning on both sides, President Obama signed the Solomonic compromise into law last week.

The bill is the product of a bitter multi-year debate over whether consumers have the right to know whether the food they buy contains genetically modified ingredients. While there is still voracious disagreement about how the bill defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether the bill’s definition will give consumers an accurate understanding of the process by which their food has been produced, Congress has affirmed consumer’s basic right to know in some form.

How easily the average shopper will be able to access these new disclosures is another story. Rather than mandating that all products contain a simple label describing whether each product contains GMO ingredients, the measure implements a proposal sought by food industry lobbyists allowing producers to either include a simple text label, like those that already appear on food packages, or a QR code that directs consumers to a website containing the relevant disclosures when scanned with a smartphone.

Many labeling proponents were not pleased with this choice, which they perceive to be a massive loophole that allows companies to obscure the issue from consumers who are either not willing or able to go through what will likely be a series of cumbersome steps to dig for the truth. Whatever your views on GMOs are, labeling advocates have a point: the QR codes are a clear attempt by industry to make answering this question more difficult for the average shopper.

On the other hand, the very existence of QR codes that direct consumers to corporate disclosures has the potential to open up a wide swath of new information about how our food is grown, packaged and sold; and create a brand new avenue for sustainability advocates to push companies into more responsible engagement with their supply chains.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands and Lives on the Line campaigns are among the many organized efforts to push the food industry towards greater transparency. And many companies have already made some disclosures about their production practices and supply chains, usually buried in lengthy sustainability reports or masked by mostly empty marketing jargon.

There is immense potential to make these disclosures more accessible to the average shopper and more meaningful in pushing change across company value chains. Many companies have come to understand the deep desire from consumers to buy products they perceive to be healthy, sustainable and just. “Sustainable” brands are among the fastest growing and most desirable lines of business in the industry. Global sales of organic food are growing three times faster than conventional.

Companies that understand the business opportunity in this new consumer portal will seize the chance to disclose more than just the GMO contents of their products. As advocates we will also have a new space to push the industry to disclose meaningful information about how their products are produced.

After all, if I have the right to know whether my soda contains GMOs, don’t I also have the right to know whether my shrimp was produced with slave labor? Or whether the women who produced my chocolate bar are getting equal pay? Whether the palm oil in my pizza was collected through deforestation?

There are any numbers of questions I would like answered about the products I buy and consume. Congress may not have created a legal mandate that these questions be answered (yet), but many companies have already recognized their importance and their own role in addressing them. It’s only a matter of time before these commitments become part of the information presented directly to consumers. If I were working for a company seeking to claim a mantle of leadership in sustainability, I’d want to be the first to make these new disclosures truly meaningful and robust.

It will take work and attention to ensure these portals do not become just another space for obfuscation or hollow jargon. But at the very least we now have a new gateway, one sought and created by the industry itself, to push for progress.

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