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Letter From The Editor: A GM Food Labeling Win


Last month I wrote a news story along the lines that President Obama this spring signed House Resolution 933 after California voters last fall defeated Proposition 37 marked two big defeats for the GMO labeling crowd. HR 933 was dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” for its limiting federal courts from ordering genetically modified crops from being destroyed. Failed Prop 37 would have required GM foods sold in California to be labeled.

So it’s only fair that I note that GMO labeling forces are celebrating a victory of sorts. The Vermont House of Representatives on May 10, 2013 became the first legislative body in America to pass a GM food labeling bill. The historic vote was 99-to-42 on H-112, requiring the labeling of all genetically engineered food in the state.

I say it’s a victory of sorts because the GMO bill is not getting a vote in the Vermont Senate this year. If H-112 gets a Senate vote in 2014, it still does not become law until at least two other states adopt similar measures.  Still, milestones are milestones. The national “Just Label It” campaign and Consumers Union, the lobbying arm of Consumer Reports, both put out press statements applauding the action by the Vermont House.

Alaska earlier this year did enact a law requiring the labeling of GE fish, which is designed to give extraordinary protection to the state’s prized salmon stocks. Washington State voters will likely also be hearing plenty about the threat of bulked-up GE salmon this fall.

In perhaps its smartest move since the Prop 37 defeat, the GM food labeling campaign did an initiative to the Legislature in Washington, which required less money spent on acquiring petition signatures and is ending up on November ballots because lawmakers opted to take no action against it.

They could have amended it, or put up their own alternative against it, but by taking no action the Initiative 522 campaign starts out on top much the way Prop 37 did in California. I guess this means that the GMO labeling issue just keeps on giving.

Before I go further, let me state for the record that I like to see the “wiring diagrams” for any and all food available to all of us. In the past, I’ve suggested we should all be supporting the contest for developing a Star Trek-style Tricorder that we could use to satisfy our curiosity.

What I haven’t been able to get all that excited about is just labeling GM food with some simple line like; “This product has been modified by genetic engineering.” If that fulfills the “right to know” mandate, I for one would be very disappointed.

If the scientific consensus is that GM foods carry no more risk to human health or the environment that their non-GMO counterparts, is this line on the label really going to mean that much? On the other hand, if, as I suspect, it’s another meaningless throw-away line on our already crowded food labels, why does the food industry care so much? (Or at least to the tune of the $45 million it spent opposing Prop 37 in California.)

The food industry’s problem is that it cannot see over the horizon. My guess is that the GM label would become another indicator, not unlike the organic label, that consumers would use to process their decisions. Sure, some might stop buying anything with a GM label, but how many? If the hops used in my favorite beer were genetically modified, I doubt if I’d care.

What consumers really want to know is more. If they find their favorite cereal is made with wheat genetically modified to grow during droughts, they probably will be happy to know without changing their purchase decision.

In other words, the food industry should pour on more information, not less. It should make transparency its friend and cease playing defense to a motley collection of activists. Consumers are hungry for more information. We in media love campaigns that never end, but the public would really like to see somebody do something useful with food information for a change.

© Food Safety News
  • So many of the discussions I hear or read focus on GMO traits that are not yet developed or crops that aren’t on the market. The vast majority of GM seed that actually exist is engineered to resist herbicides.

    Traits like drought-resistance are regulated by a much more complex interaction within a plant’s DNA. The scientific process of significantly improving a crop’s resistance to drought through genetic engineering is a world away from the simple gene insertions or on-off switches that we see on the market.

    The hops in your beer were not genetically engineered, and the wheat in your bread wasn’t either. What is likely is that the soy or corn in livestock feed, junk food, or ethanol, was engineered to allow it to be sprayed with chemicals.

    Is there the possibility of a game-changing breakthrough in genetic engineering? Of course. There’s also opportunities to improve crops in other ways. But, you can be sure biotechnology companies will pour many millions of dollars into trying to fulfill there bold promises The companies are driven by profit and they hope to patent and sell those crops if they can ever figure them out.

    This all begs the questions: Who is going to invest in knowledge-based methods that small farmers can learn and practice without paying fees to a huge company? Is it really wise to put so much hope into GMOs, when so far they have made only a minor and short-lived contribution to food production?

    I know I’ve diverged from the topic, so I apologize. It just often seems that GMOs are discussed based on their promises and not their deliverables. This is a good piece by Dan, and I agree with him on the matter of labeling.

  • farmber

    Transparency is the death-knell for the faceless industrialized food machinations that lace our food supply. So many resources have been spent on presenting a bright, cheery image to all those glowing products on supermarket shelves — that when the public get’s a glimpse behind the curtain into how their meat was actually grown and processed (CAFOs> pink slime) to the long lists of toxic pesticides and GMOs on and in their veggies — there is an understandable reaction and movement toward alternatives in the marketplace.

    Hint to the food industry: this goes wayyyyy deeper than a P.R. problem….

  • Ray Webb

    If you don’t care about your health, you can eat and frink genetically modified food as much as you want. Studies like this: http://www.foodconsumer.org/newsite/Safety/gmo/gmo_0923121215.html
    should be attached to every food label like they have to do it for cigarettes or medicine. Of course people smoke, knowing about the danger of smoking and don’t care until they have lung cancer, you can eat genetically modified food until you are full ot tumors and other health problems, but we should have to right to know it and be warned of the consequences it we consume it!