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A sad day for our society when salt is labeled non-GMO

There it was on the salt container label, the proud proclamation that the product inside was "non-GMO."

I looked at the label a second time and then a third time, not quite trusting my eyes, before telling myself, "But salt doesn't have genes. Of course it's not genetically modified. Why bother labeling it non-GMO?"

Then I realized why: some consumers will pay extra for anything labeled non-GMO — and some food companies are happy to sell it to them at the higher price. Salt, though an extreme example, reflects this powerful and growing trend that affects both farmers and consumers.

I think again of that experience with "non-GMO" salt after recently writing a short story on U.S. dairy farmers' ongoing campaign to combat what they say are deceptive labels. Dairy officials report seeing some success.

So: Is the non-GMO label on salt deceptive? Well, let's look at the other side of the issue.

The website of Non-GMO Project — which describes itself as dedicated to preserving and identifying non-GMO products — says "most table salt or sea salt on the market today has minor amounts of other ingredients such as the anti‑caking agent dextrose, which are very likely to be derived from genetically modified corn."

The web site also says, "Verifying only high-risk products puts a burden on consumers to know what crops are currently being genetically engineered and which ingredients are derived from these GMOs."

Maybe you find those arguments convincing. I do not. Genetically modified corn — or any other food — doesn't concern me; a comprehensive 2016 report from the National Academy of Sciences finds that GMO foods are as safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts. Nor can I fathom the logic of lumping salt with crops, or plants cultivated for food; I also fail to see how it's "a burden on consumers" to figure that out.

It's a stretch, I think, to say that non-GMO salt labels are downright deceptive. But they're a meaningless distinction at best, misleading at worst.

I believe strongly in choice, both for consumers and farmers. I'll never try to tell you what food to eat or what crops to raise. We live in a free country, thank goodness.

If you've studied the evidence carefully and decided to buy non-GMO salt and other products, good for you. It's your money, your decision.

If you've evaluated your farming operation and marketing opportunities and decided to raise non-GMO crops, good for you. It's your farm or ranch, your decision.

And because it's a free country, farmers and farm groups who support GMOs should publicize their cause, just as dairy farmers are doing.

My concerns

Though I'm not interested in telling farmers or consumers what to do, I have two concerns.

The first is the impact of higher-priced, non-GMO food on people, especially families, with modest incomes. One recent study found that non-GMO food products can cost 10 percent to 62 percent more than comparable products containing GMO ingredients.

The study, released this spring by Jayson Lusk, Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes and Alexandre Magnier, found, among other things, that non-GMO ice cream costs 10 percent more, non-GMO breakfast cereal 26 percent more and non-GMO salad and cooking oils 62 percent more.

If you're an affluent American, that's no big deal. If you're living on a tight budget, it is. So I'm no fan of well-heeled celebrities who tout non-GMOs on social media and elsewhere; maybe they really believe what they say, but they seem oblivious to how people with limited financial resources are affected.

I'm also concerned by what the glut of non-GMO labels reveals about Americans' scientific literacy, or the knowledge of scientific concepts required for personal decision-making. Yeah, I'm an ag journalist. I'm supposed to know a fair amount about crops and food. But some of these things are so basic and self-evident that they should be common knowledge.

It's a sad day for our society when we have GMO-free labels on salt containers.