An Urban's Rural View

When 625,000 Make Policy for 320 Million

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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One Goliath after another buckles, felled by that pesky David called Vermont. Kellogg, Mars, General Mills, Campbell Soup, ConAgra -- all now say they will label products containing genetically engineered ingredients nationally in compliance with Vermont law. Other Goliaths may tumble soon.

That's some giant-slaying slingshot Vermont wields, eh? Yes, but in a way the wounds are self-inflicted.

Pro-GMO groups, including much of the food industry, had counted on Congress to pre-empt state labeling laws by enacting a national law well before July 1, when the Vermont statute takes effect. That might have happened had the pro-GMO forces been willing to accept mandatory national labeling to avoid mandatory state labeling.

Instead, they held out for voluntary labeling. Whatever its merits, the voluntary approach never had much chance of passing the Senate. The Democrats wanted mandatory labeling and they had the leverage: If Congressional action failed, Vermont's mandatory-labeling law would take effect. When a voluntary bill made it to the Senate floor, it got only 48 votes.

If the pro-voluntary camp figured mandatory in one state is preferable to mandatory nationally, it miscalculated. The battle line of toppled Goliaths underscores the miscalculation.

Labeling products differently in different states is costly and cumbersome. Rather than pulling out of Vermont, these food companies are imposing Vermont's standards on the rest of the country. A state with 625,000 people is effectively making food-labeling policy for a nation of 320 million.

Worse, absent Congressional pre-emption other states remain free to pass their own labeling laws. Their mandates could differ from Vermont's, leaving the industry with the dreaded patchwork of contradictory labeling laws.

What should the pro-GMO camp do differently? The answer lies in what is perhaps the best book every written about negotiation, "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving in" (…).

The book's key message is to bargain for interests, not positions. Avoiding mandatory labeling is a position. The interest, the underlying thing that really matters, is to avoid scaring customers away from buying food containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Imagine that in the pursuit of their real interest, the pro-GMO lobbyists had granted the public's "right to know" but modified it to say: "the right to know the whole truth." They could then have accepted mandatory labeling in exchange for labels including a simple, factual statement in support of biotechnology.

They might have started the negotiations with, "The National Academy of Science and the American Medical Association say genetically engineered food is safe to eat." In addition to being true, that would assure most consumers the disclosure was not intended as a warning.

The pro-GMO camp is right in thinking Americans should not care whether their food has been genetically engineered. But whether they should or not, many Americans do care. The Vermont law demonstrates that. So, indirectly but tellingly, do the millions pro-GMO forces had to spend to defeat labeling laws in California, Oregon and Washington.

Why wage this fight? Why not fight, instead, to ensure the public is not mislead in the recognition of its right to know?

Now the question is what the remaining Goliaths will do. Will they follow the five that have already bowed to Vermont? Change labels just for Vermont but keep the old labels for the rest of the country? Refuse to do business in the Green Mountain State? Launch another lobbying effort in Congress? History suggests some of them will want somehow to fight on.

The biblical David claimed to have God on his side. This time the remaining Goliaths will be up against a force that shares little in common with God but is nonetheless formidable: public opinion. Watch out for those rocks, guys.

Urban Lehner



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