Theater vs. Substance:  Sparks will Fly at Congressional Hearing on Genetically Modified Food Labeling

The Health Subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act tomorrow.  Although the timing of the hearing is odd since the 113th Congress is winding down and the bill will not pass in this session, it sets the table for a renewed effort to pass the legislation in the 114th Congress.

Opponents of the legislation will dazzle committee members and the press with demands that every consumer has a right to know what’s in their food.  They will talk about how GMOs are not safe and are deleterious to the environment.  They will have little evidence, but their testimony will sound passionate and urgent.

Advocates of the legislation will testify to the safety and benefits of genetically modified food ingredients (GMOs) and explain why they cannot reasonably operate under a 50 state patchwork of labeling laws.

Although fighting state and local GMO labeling laws through campaigns, lobbying and in the courts is expensive and time consuming, the truth is the pro-GMO side is not only winning the political battle, they are gaining opinion leader and consumer support for GMOs along the way.

Much like the scientific battle over global warming research has led to general acceptance of climate change, the overwhelming scientific support for the safety and benefits of GMOs is growing and will one day benefit from similar convention.

The questions are how long will it take and how ugly will the public policy dialogue get?  And what toll will the contentious public policy fight take on consumer trust?

That is why, even if the pro-GMO side keeps winning in the policy arena, an effort to provide consumers with full transparency for GMO content is likely the key to maintaining consumer trust.

A digital solution to GMO “labeling” will be time consuming and costly, but provides the best chance to end the sometimes visceral public debate over GMOs and pave the way for a deeper discussion about how we are going to feed a global population of nine billion people by 2050.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, is former executive vice president of communications & membership services for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association