By substantial majorities, the Vermont legislature recently passed a bill to require labels on “genetically modified” foods. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it into law on Thursday. Everyone paying attention expects a lawsuit (which VT is certain to lose).
What is this all about? Spoiler alert: It’s not about safety, it’s not about choice, and it’s not about transparency. It’s about special interests abusing the power of the state to promote their ideology at the expense of safe food, more sustainable agriculture and lower prices.
It should first be noted that all food, produced by whatever method, is genetically modified by any definition that respects the facts of nature. Genetic modification is the essential and unavoidable foundation of life, and all the techniques biotechnologists use are derived directly from what we find happening everywhere in nature. Given this, the overbroad definition of “genetic modification” enshrined in the bill will make enforcement difficult, to say the least, and is even less scientifically sound than those laws decreeing pi to be 3.00 to secure the compelling state interest in making geometry calculations more convenient.
Second, there is an overwhelming global scientific consensus on the safety of biotech improved crops and foods. This consensus is reflected in numerous examples, including the fact that the European Union has spent more than 300 million Euros over 25 years on 131 studies involving more than 400 research groups, leading them to conclude “the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make [GM foods] even safer than conventional plants and foods.”
Despite this, some continue to claim this or that scientific study has found a specific safety issue with GMOs, or even go so far to argue that anti-GMO findings have been censored. But these advocates fail to recognize that numerous studies, both pro- and con-GMO, have been rigorously reviewed by the scientific community, with nearly all claiming a safety issue being rejected or ignored because of multiple failures in experimental design and analysis. Indeed, the most widely cited such paper was actually retracted by the publisher, after being repudiated by every competent scientific and regulatory body around the world.
Failed by the science, GMO labeling proponents have turned to the claim that labels are required to secure a “right to choose.” But freedom to choose is already secured through multiple paths. The USDA Organic label prohibits the use of biotechnology in organic production, and the NonGMO Project provides similar assurances. There is even a smartphone app that allows consumers to scan a product bar code in the grocery store aisle to learn if it includes GM ingredients or not. So an additional label mandated by the state would add little to consumer choice and provide no additional information to the public that is not already available from a variety of sources.
In the end, every other argument having failed, the claim becomes one of “a right to know.” Because who could possibly object to giving consumers information? But, despite claims to the contrary, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had that covered for years. Government regulations already require that if a food produced through “genetic modification” (or any other production method) has been changed in any way relevant to health, safety, or nutrition, that it must be indicated on the label. But the FDA goes a step further than Vermont by requiring that food labels be “accurate, informative, and not misleading.” Furthermore, FDA has found that since genetic modification in and of itself does not impact the safety or nutrition of a food, labels specifically designed to denote genetic modification are unnecessary.
And herein lies an important point. Biotech opponents have failed to ban GMOs outright and failed to get national labels through FDA, so now they are turning to state campaigns to attack GM foods. The Vermont legislation is not a locally grown product. It’s part of a nationwide campaign to push similar legislation in states across the nation. Leaders of this effort have been very clear about their true objectives. Andrew Kimbrell of the marvelously misnamed Center for Food Safety has said, “We are going to force them to label this food. If we have it labeled, then we can organize people not to buy it.” Jeffrey Smith, of the equally misleading Institute for Responsible Technology, has stated, “By avoiding GMOs, you contribute to the tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing them out of our food supply.” And the Organic Consumers Association’s Ronnie Cummins says,“The burning question for all of us then becomes how – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2 percent market niche to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.”
These ideologues also believe that labeling will make it easier to bully food manufacturing companies into avoiding GM ingredients. And the sponsors of the VT legislation have openly embraced this cynical approach.
In other words, the Vermont legislation is nothing but an extension of the fear-based marketing campaign that has driven the growth of organic foods. It is not a reasoned policy effort to improve consumer knowledge or safety. It’s easy for these folks to be for organic foods but also easy for them to forget that organic foods are largely a luxury item that upper-income Americans might consume but most working Americans do not, for the simple reason that organic foods cost between 20 and 100 percent more than non-organics. It is why upscale stores like Whole Foods are almost all located in the wealthiest of neighborhoods.
To protect the environmental benefits, food abundance and lower prices that have been delivered by seeds and crops improved through biotechnology, policymakers need to reject this special-interest rent-seeking and roll back the attempts to pass Vermont-style bills in additional states, as both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have urged, and FDA’s commissioner has recently reaffirmed. This will be the best way to truly protect food safety and actual consumer choice.© Food Safety News