Label Thumpers

The GMO movement is about faith, not facts.

GMO labeling.

More and more big players in the food industry are promising to start labeling GMO products.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The fight over genetically modified ingredients is almost over. The industry is backing down. In the next few months, one way or another, packaged foods made with GMOs will be labeled at your supermarket.

The only question that remains is how, exactly, the labels will be regulated and to what extent. The first state law to require GMO disclosures, passed two years ago in Vermont, comes into force this July, and recent efforts to reverse it—in the courts and in Congress—have failed. Now the big players in the food industry are lining up to make concessions to widespread public sentiment and to stave off conflicting and confusing legislation. In January, the Campbell Soup Co. (which also manufactures Swanson broths, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and V8) promised it would label all its U.S. products to indicate which contain ingredients derived from GMOs. Last week, General Mills and Mars Food made a similar announcement, and then so did Kellogg and ConAgra.

For huge companies like these, the real-life facts about GMOs—I mean, the facts about their actual effects, or noneffects, on human health and the environment—are secondary. So what if advocates for labeling come off as anti-science zealots or denialists with no more respect for expert consensus than a bunch of climate skeptics? So what if study after study shows that GM foods are safe? The people want what they want. Transparency sells.

If you’re the kind of person who frets over Americans’ lack of scientific literacy, this accommodationist position may send you into a sputtering rage. A person’s right to know, you might contend, should be in balance with his or her right to avoid unnecessary panic. The mere presence of a label has dire implications. It tells consumers that there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between GMO and non-GMO ingredients—a “material“ difference in the language of the Food and Drug Administration—and one that should be taken seriously. Yet “genetic modification” describes a process, not an end result, and there’s no evidence that this process leads to special risks. Some bioengineered options on the supermarket shelf could be better for your health than other products. Some could be better for independent farmers and their families. And some could be worse. The scarlet GMO blankets all this variation and replaces it with dread.

But this approach to the debate ignores the movement’s deeper motivations. It posits that the case for labeling GMO ingredients stems from scientific claims and that it can be addressed or argued down on scientific grounds. If you examine what the advocates of labeling are really saying and if you study the legal language they’re promoting, it’s clear that anti-GMO sentiment goes well beyond the facts. “[W]e’re not advocating labeling because we believe GM crops are unsafe,” says Gary Hirshberg, chairman of both the organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm and the organic-industry–backed advocacy group Just Label It. “Safety,” as such, is just one part of the equation.

The movement Hirshberg represents makes assertions about public health but draws its energy from public values. Like the push for Prohibition or the recent fights to regulate what can be called a “natural“ food, it builds from intuitions rather than observations, from apprehensions rather than data, and from theology rather than epidemiology. Avoidance of genetically modified foods is more religious than rational: It’s a cultural taboo akin to keeping kosher, based on core beliefs about purity and the natural order. As such, its adherents deserve the same respect and deference that we afford to other spiritual communities.

The pro-labeling movement makes no effort to hide its devotional underpinnings. It even has its own saints and visitations. Pamm Larry, the rural grandma who launched California’s labeling initiative in 2011, told the Atlantic’s Molly Ball that the plan came to her in a dream one winter’s night. The Vermont law that goes into effect this summer lists religion among its four cardinal motivations. “[T]he State should require food produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such,” it says, to “prevent inadvertent consumer deception, prevent potential risks to human health, protect religious practices, and protect the environment.” Elsewhere, it declares the need to “provide consumers with data from which they may make informed decisions for religious reasons.”

The anti-GMO movement intersects and overlaps with organized religions. When the food industry filed suit over the Vermont law, a Canadian philosopher named Conrad Brunk filed an amicus brief expanding on this idea. Brunk had chaired an expert committee on GMO regulation set up by the Canadian government and in 2009 he edited a study of religious attitudes toward genetic modification among both scholars and lay practitioners. “The scholars and practitioners in almost every case have fundamentally different ontological views about the nature of reality,” Brunk told me. In short, the experts were somewhat more forgiving in their appraisal of GMOs and how they might fit into each faith. A scholar of Judaism, for example, didn’t think that a tomato would become un-kosher just because its genome had been augmented with a pig gene. But in a series of focus groups, Brunk and his colleagues found that regular, practicing Jews might see the “pig-ness” of that extra gene as a contaminant. The tomato would be off limits.

There’s no such thing as a pig-mato—that’s a standard hypothetical. But similar issues have already come up in the marketplace. The GM salmon breed that the FDA approved last November, called AquaBounty, includes an eel gene, and since eels are not kosher—their scales can’t easily be removed—anti-GMO activists have argued that AquaBounty salmon are themselves off limits for observant Jews. Rabbis may disagree, but as Brunk argues in his legal brief, the real beliefs and practices of religious folks are more relevant to public policy than the hairsplitting theories of scholars and theologians.

Religious objections to GMOs aren’t limited to esoteric, sectarian debates over pig-ness and eel-ification. Members of Brunk’s focus groups expressed more ecumenical concerns that genetic engineering might be an unnatural violation—a way of “playing God” or abusing God’s creation.

Even for those who don’t belong to any church, these generic fears about messing with the sanctity of nature define their own, freelanced animism. And familiar claims that GM foods are hazardous to human health or harmful to the planet can be understood as offshoots of an underlying, theological position: One pays a price for sacrilege.

If opposition to GMOs functions like a religious food taboo, then the limits of that taboo are subject to further sectarian divides. These play out most clearly in the Talmudic debates over the exact meaning of the phrase “genetically engineered.” Consider the case of Chipotle: The company started labeling its genetically modified ingredients in 2013, and it was ahead of the curve when it banned them outright last April. (For the record, Chipotle’s aggressive stance on GMOs has failed to prevent serial outbreaks of burrito-borne E. coli, norovirus, and salmonella.) But in August 2015 a Piedmont, California, resident named Colleen Gallagher filed suit against the company for deceptive business practices. “As Chipotle told consumers it was ‘G-M-Over it,’ the opposite was true,” her lawsuit claimed. Beverages in the restaurant’s soda machines were made with GM corn syrup. Meat in the restaurant’s entrees was cut from animals that had eaten GM feed.

A few weeks ago, a federal judge threw out Gallagher’s claim, calling her definition of GMOs unreasonable. But she’s not the only one to hold this view. The Non-GMO Project, a 10-year-old initiative to put a verification stamp on GMO-free food products, takes the same position on ingredients made from animals that were fed genetically modified chow. Meanwhile, the Vermont law specifically excludes these same ingredients from mandatory labeling, as well as those produced from genetically engineered “processing aids” such as yeast or enzymes.

The fact that anti-GMO clerics can argue over how many genes fit on the head of a pin doesn’t mean their entire system of beliefs—including all its worries over hidden dangers—isn’t worth considering. Indeed, religious food taboos often overlap with important matters of human health and local ecology. It would be a mistake to discount the stated concerns of the GMO-labeling movement on account of its naked religiosity.

A study of the dietary practices of fishing communities on the Atlantic Coast and in the Amazon found, for example, that taboo species—the ones people refused to eat for religious and cultural reasons—were overrepresented among fish that eat other fish. That makes sense, since such higher-order predators tend to accumulate more toxins from the environment. The taboo could help prevent the fishermen from getting sick. In a similar vein, a cross-cultural survey of 70 taboos on eating specific animals, conducted by a pair of Swedish ecologists in the late 1990s, found that 30 percent of those prohibitions offered benefits to the environment, in the form of de facto preservation of a threatened species. Indigenous populations in Ecuador and Peru, for example, avoided eating spectacled bears, tapirs, giant anteaters, and giant armadillos—each of which had been deemed a “vulnerable species” by the World Conservation Union.

The anti-GMO position, on the other hand, makes explicit claims about environmental and personal health in the absence of clear, real-world benefits. That’s not unusual, as many religious food injunctions stem from a mixture of essentialist dogma and dubious medical assertions. In his 2009 study of the origins and purposes of food taboos, biologist Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow describes several such beliefs, including those among communities in Nigeria where children are told not to drink coconut milk on the grounds that it causes cognitive impairment.

More familiar, well-established food taboos reveal in their actual practice among Americans a similar grab bag of motivations—spiritual, environmental, and health-related all at once. In 2009, the research firm Mintel pegged the value of the market for Kosher-certified foods at $12.5 billion, and its survey of 2,500 adults found that 13 percent preferred to buy kosher foods. (Religious Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population.) But among that group, just 1 in 7 told the researchers that they ate kosher for religious reasons. Most believed instead (and without apparent evidence) that kosher foods are of higher quality or that they’re more healthful or safer to eat. “My sense is that consumers probably couldn’t tell us what kosher meant, but the kosher mark is reassuring,” one Mintel analyst explained.

That may be why the labeling of kosher foods is on the rise. A more recent Mintel study found that kosher claims appeared on almost half of all new food products in 2015, compared to just one in four in 2012. Naturally, the proportion of new products making non-GMO claims is also going up, from 3 percent in 2012 to 16 percent last year. Both marketing categories serve the latent religiosity of a growing population of consumers. Like the circled K or U that signifies a food is kosher, a GMO-free label would offer nothing more and nothing less than spiritual reassurance. It hints at something deeper than the chemical makeup of ingredients and something more fundamental than any set of scientific facts. It interrogates the nature of a salmon or burrito and opens up its soul.

Consumers with kosher or anti-GMO beliefs share a set of common interests. Both hold religious or quasi-religious views about the sanctity of food and demand transparency about agricultural practices and other modes of food production. The two groups also share a common problem: The products they want are indistinguishable, on the supermarket shelf, from the products they shun. Once a chicken nugget has been packaged and prepared, there’s no way to tell the difference between a kosher and nonkosher version or whether it was made from GMOs.

So why not treat GMO labeling the way we treat kosher designations? Instead of putting out a mandate for GMO labeling—which feels more like an imposition of religion than preservation of its freedom—regulators should spend their time reducing the risk of label fraud. As with kosher regulation, they could ensure that any voluntary scheme for marketing foods as “GMO-free” is honest and consistent. If we want to keep our kitchens clear of genetic engineering—if we choose to worship one specific way of growing plants and animals—then that should be our right. When we buy a GMO-free burrito, we should have faith in what we’re getting.