WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has self-characterized his energetic and surprisingly persistent campaign for the Democrat nomination for president with the phrase, “Feel the Bern.” Such a quest from the Senate’s only declared Socialist from the tiny state of Vermont was seen by many pundits as quixotic at best. Who would have thought it would prove as enduring or compelling as it has?
The same might be said about G.M.O. labeling. Who would have thought that a labeling law from the same small state would have prompted General Mills, Inc., ConAgra Foods, Inc., Kellogg Co. and Mars, Inc., among others, to announce that they would begin labeling their products containing bioengineered ingredients? Not unlike Mr. Sanders’ resilient candidacy, this labeling decision is the result of an unforeseen combination of events. Three stand out: an energized core group, a federal government failure and a legitimate concern.
An energized core group
Mr. Sanders, much like Donald Trump, has articulated a message that resonates with a core group in dramatic and heated fashion. For Mr. Sanders, the primal assertion is that our society’s ills are the result of big money in its many forms — Wall Street, large corporations, the very rich. Evidence and rational analysis take a distant second place compared to the visceral feelings that his rhetoric has evoked.
A similar phenomenon exists with bioengineered ingredients. As Mars said in its labeling announcement, “Food developed through biotechnology has been studied extensively and judged safe by a broad range of regulatory agencies, scientists, health professionals, and other experts around the world.” Yet, this counts for little among advocates of a “consumer’s right to know” what is in the food they eat. This sentiment is so strong with respect to bioengineered ingredients, in fact, that Kellogg’s announcement, while regretting its need to label, still declared that “we strongly believe in transparency and that people should know what’s in their food….” In the case of bioengineered ingredients, though, knowledge and unjustified fear have condensed into the demand for labeling.
What “outsider” candidates like Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump have tapped into is the frustration among many citizens with political posturing, legislative gridlock and economic malaise. Neither Republicans and Democrats nor Congress and the White House have been able to agree on responses to developments that make many Americans feel more insecure economically and globally.
Proponents of G.M.O. labeling have benefitted from the same kind of federal failure. Few markets are more national than manufactured food products, and few products have so much of their labeling governed by federal laws and rules. Yet, when it comes to G.M.O. labeling, Congress has been unable to arrive at a consensus national policy. As a result, the tiny state of Vermont has written the labeling rules for all Americans. It is hard to imagine a more unlikely — or unreasonable — outcome, especially since consumer safety is not the stumbling block.
Political turbulence, however, does not arise out of thin air. Many workers genuinely fear for their job security. Wages for less-skilled workers have stagnated or declined. Many young people fear they will not do as well economically as their parents, and many commentators have written about a hollowing out of the middle class. Angst in such an environment is understandable.
The proposed solutions, however, often seem ineffective or counterproductive. Whether it is raising tariff and immigration walls or tearing down large, successful businesses, few experts agree that such ideas are either workable or useful. The impulse to do something about rising inequality of income and wealth and about fears of future economic and personal insecurity, however, is strong enough in many minds to overpower thoughtful remedies.
A similar situation seems to prevail with respect to bioengineered foods (as contrasted, for example, with bioengineered medicines or industrial and processing agents). A national, voluntary labeling regime has been proposed for several years in Congress, but its supporters have been unable to bring it into law. As a result, the food industry and food consumers have been saddled with a solution reflecting one small state’s view of how food should be marketed.
There should be better ways to address disparate consumer values than to impose an extreme expression of those values on the entire marketplace. But that requires a well-functioning federal government, which at least in this case does not seem to exist.
This extended analogy between an unprecedented and divisive presidential nomination campaign on the one hand and a persistent and illogical G.M.O. labeling regime on the other hand may seem, well, overextended. Perhaps so. But there also may be a kernel of truth in it. When the normal processes of governance and compromise break down, the result may not be just inaction. Instead, the law of unintended consequences may rear up and produce candidates or solutions that reflect strongly — but not widely — held beliefs. We can wish that it were otherwise.
Or, as ConAgra put it in its labeling announcement: “With a multitude of other states currently considering different G.M.O. labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever. That’s why we continue to urge Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible.”