In politics you often hear people call for "states' rights" as a way to justify certain positions. This argument sounds like recourse to a high Constitutional principle, but really, it's anything but that. Regardless of the issue, both liberals and conservatives respect states' rights when they don't have enough power to win in Washington. And both sides conveniently forget about states' rights when they can prevail at the federal level. It's just a flag of convenience.
For example, Southern conservatives waved the banner of states' rights when they fought the civil rights battles of the 1960s and beyond. And liberals implicitly wave the states' rights banner when fighting over state or local regulations (like minimum wage or engine emissions or marriage equality) where they lack sufficient power to win at the federal level.
Allowing states to set their own higher (or lower) standards makes sense in many cases. It respects the will of the voters, which may vary from state to state. And it lets the U.S. run a 50 state experiment to see what does work and what doesn't work. Then, after the experiment has run its course, we can federalize the approaches that work the best.
[READ: Are GMOs Really That Harmful to Eat?]
But sometimes it's important to allow the federal government to overrule individual state policies, a doctrine called "federal preemption." If there is an overriding moral principle at stake, it may not be just to allow a few states to ignore it. And if complying with a patchwork of individual requirements is prohibitively expensive it may be necessary to find some way to set common standards.
The cost argument gets overplayed though: For example, in California you can't buy certain kinds of chain saws because the small gas engines that power them emit too much pollution for California air quality standards. But alternatives have emerged. California doesn't seem to be suffering for lack of stinky two-stroke engines.
Right now this contest between state and federal power is playing out in regard to labeling of foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs.
The use of GMOs is controversial. There is debate in the scientific community as to whether the consumption of GMO foods hurts people directly. But there is no denying that GMOs result in vastly more herbicide (such as Roundup, a top weed killer) being dumped on food crops, and that glyphosphate (the active ingredient in Roundup) probably causes cancer in the quantities used. Other Roundup ingredients are suspect as well.
[READ: GMOs – From a Farmer’s Perspective]
Those who oppose GMOs don't have the upper hand in Congress and so they are not proposing an outright ban. Instead, they seek to establish a uniform labeling system so that food producers clearly identify whether their products have GMOs or not. Labeling is very popular among American consumers: In multiple polls conducted over the years by many different firms, about 90 percent of Americans consistently support mandatory labeling.
Mandatory labeling initiatives are in play in many states, and have passed in three (Maine, Vermont and Connecticut). But Big Ag (including Monsanto, which makes Roundup and Roundup-ready seed) is spending heavily to block these efforts as they come up. For example, in Oregon, companies spent over $18 million in opposition, while supporters spent about half that. The bill lost by three-tenths of 1 percent. Three years ago, California voters defeated Prop 37, a mandatory GMO labeling bill, by a narrow 3 percent margin after more than $44 million was spent by industry to oppose it.
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Right now, the House and Senate are listening to Big Ag rather than to American consumers. The House recently passed a bill that gives the appearance of supporting GMO disclosure while doing the opposite. The bill, H.R. 1599, carries a brilliantly deceptive name that would make George Orwell proud. Called the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014" the bill would reinforce the current voluntary disclosure system but would prohibit individual states and counties from enacting more stringent legislation. Not to be outmaneuvered in the naming department, the detractors have branded this bill the "DARK Act" as in "Deny Americans the Right to Know" or "Keep Americans in the DARK".
The real reason for the act has nothing to do with Constitutional principle or the practical cost of compliance. It doesn't cost much to phase in a new label with the words "Contains GMO food" or "No GMOs inside." The real reason for the act is that Big Ag is afraid that if consumers know what's in the food, they won't buy it. So let's run the experiment and find out. If a state requires GMO labeling, then consumers will be able to choose. Those consumers who want to pay more for GMO-free food will have that option. Those consumers who want to pay as little as possible and don't care about GMO's will have that option. Isn't that the way markets are supposed to work?
After a few years we'll have enough information to know whether state-level GMO labeling laws help the economy or hurt it. And we'll know whether GMO labeling helps or hurts public health. Then we can make a sound decision about whether to require labeling at a national level.