When Bad Regulation Isn’t a Bad Idea

Last Friday, President Obama quietly signed legislation requiring special labeling for commercial foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—plants and animals with desirable genetic traits that were directly implanted in a laboratory. Gene modification typically yields plants and animals that take less time to reach maturity, have greater resistance to drought or disease, or have other desirable traits like sweeter corn or meatier livestock. Yet some people oppose these scientific advances, for reasons that aren’t all that clear.

Most of the foods that humans and animals have consumed for millennia have been genetically modified. Usually this was done through the unpredictable, haphazard technique of cross-fertilization, a technique whose development marked the dawn of agriculture. Yet the new law targets only the highly precise gene manipulations done in laboratories. The labeling requirement comes in spite of the fact that countless scientific organizations—including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the British Royal Society—have concluded that GMOs pose no more threat to human health than new organisms developed through traditional methods.

Accordingly, some Obama critics have responded to his bill-signing by sarcastically quoting his earlier vows to rely on science when policymaking. The cleverer critics have even asked what comes next: dihydrogen monoxide warnings? Labels that foods contain no fairies or gremlins?

The critics overlook the incredible weakness of the new law, which can be satisfied with something as unobtrusive as a nondescript QR code linking to a GMO notice. In fact, anti-GMO activists oppose the new law because it preempts more rigorous regulation. And that’s exactly what President Obama and Congress intended to do.

The immediate reason for the new legislation is a more onerous 2014 Vermont law that would have affected the food supply chain, raising consumer prices nationally. Similar requirements were percolating in other states, advanced by anti-GMO activists (and agribusiness groups that don’t want competition from GMO products). With a stroke of the pen, President Obama and federal lawmakers have used a bad but meager requirement to counteract those far worse state laws.

This is not the only time the Obama White House has helped consumers and advanced science, to the frustration of the anti-GMO crowd. His administration previously approved the AquAdvantage salmon that had languished in bureaucratic review hell for decades.

Cato’s Regulation has covered GMOs and the broader biotech controversy for decades. You can see a couple of those articles if you click on the last two links above. Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler will have an article on the new labeling law in the magazine’s fall issue.