Saturday, August 20, 2016

GMOs and QR Codes: Consumers need more than a label they need a learning path

I recently came across an article in national geographic about the new GMO labeling compromise that I thought was well written:

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/07/gmo-label/  

The article asks:

"But what good is a label if people don't know what it means?"

That's the point...a blatant politically charged label with direct language or terms like "genetically engineered" is meaningless. I've discussed before how this can increase information asymmetry (i.e.consumer confusion).

One thing the article discusses in the huge gap in the science related to biotechnology and consumer knowledge and perceptions (something I have been studying since graduate school):

"Despite thousands of scientific studies, support from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences, and, most recently, the concerted advocacy of 107 concerned Nobel laureates, the bulk of the public remains firmly convinced that GMOs are at best undesirable and at worst, downright dangerous. In other words, to the majority of Americans, a GMO label on a can of corn might as well be a skull-and-crossbones. What we’ve got here is a gaping divide between reputable scientific research and public perception. Unfounded GMO fear-mongering is doing us, as a planet, more harm than good."


There is huge burden on the consumer in terms of understanding complex modern agriculture. Earlier in the article there is some criticism of the currently proposed labeling paradigm:

"The federally approved warning label can consist of a QR (Quick Response) code, accessible by smartphone, or an 800 number that customers can call for information. These alternatives are not immediately helpful, and require time and effort on the part of consumers, many burdened with long grocery lists and fractious toddlers."

But given the huge gap in information I'm not sure there is any label that can be immediately helpful. The last thing we need is a shortcut label with confusing language like "genetically modified" that information economizing consumers will just interpret as a skull and cross-bones and move on. That approach is no better. It may in fact be the case that the QR code, if implemented properly may be the best way to attempt to fill that gap. It accomplishes a couple important things:

1) It can provide full disclosure and transparency
2) For consumers that truly want to understand what is in their food, it *can* potentially provide a learning path that helps fill this gap of knowledge from farm to fork

As I understand it, the details around the content and format of information related to QR codes is yet to be decided. I think a few things are necessary to make this work.

First, if this issue is important enough to be addressed FEDERALLY with a national labeling standard, then lets make this work for all food. Maybe require in some format that all foods that fall under this legislation have a "more information" section and a QR code, not just foods that contain so called "genetically engineered" ingredients.  If a label with a QR code becomes a proxy indicator for GMOs, that will defeat the whole purpose of an effort genuinely designed to inform the consumer. After all there are lots of approaches to food production out there- conventional breeding and hybridization, recombinant DNA, mutagenic approaches, and on the horizon CRISPR cas technology (HT: John Phipps).

Second, what should the 'landing page' look like for a QR code? What kind of information should it contain and how should it be presented? This is where the government needs to elicit the help of experts in science and communication. I am not sure, but I propose a learning path. Before saying anything about how a specific food product was produced, the consumer should quickly and effectively be exposed to a summary or survey of the many ways plants and animals are modified in agriculture to produce the foods we have today. (again conentional breeding/selection/hybridization/mutagenic/recombinant/CRISPR cas9/fermentation/cheese cultures etc.). Also they should be informed about the safety, regulations etc. about these technologies and the consensus views of groups like World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences etc.

Finally they should be informed about the specifics of the food they are considering to purchase. All of this info can be standardized and used as stock for all food products, with more specific information for each food product detailed at the end of the 'learning path.' Maybe this could all be accomplished with a video or interactive infographic. But I firmly believe that a more comprehensive universal learning path approach like this is the most honest and transparent way to inform consumers about current and new technologies on the horizon and their safety and benefits. Not some politically loaded unscientific term like "genetically engineered" or "genetically modified."

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