Our Opinion: The battle over GMO labels far from over
Don't count your free-ranging, organically fed chickens until they hatch.
While we greeted with enthusiasm the news that Vermont is the first state in the nation to require the labeling of genetically modified foods, the fight has just begun.
As quickly as Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the legislation into law, organizations such as the Grocery Manufacturers' Association indicated they would file suit to abrogate the law. While legislators were debating H.722, chemical leviathan Monsanto also threatened to sue.
H.722, the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, requires the labeling of not only products filled entirely with GMOs, but also those partially created using GM ingredients.
In addition, the law prohibits the use of labels such as "natural," "naturally made," "naturally grown," "all natural," and other similar statements by the manufacturers of food products containing GMOs
"It ain't over," Nicholas Fereday, an analyst at Rabobank International, who has covered the food industry for more than 20 years, told Bloomberg News. "After the signing comes the lawsuit. The First Amendment protects the free speech of commercial enterprises, too, and its alleged violation will probably be the lawyers' first line of attack."
The food industry is poised to sue because it knows the law, which is scheduled to take effect in July 2016, could ripple across the nation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 85 pending GMO labeling bills in 29 states.
The Vermont Legislature knew the bill would come under legal attack the minute it was signed into law, so it set aside $1.5 million in a legal defense fund. But that's surely not going to be enough. Legislators estimate it could cost up to $8 million to defend the law in court.
After Shumlin signed the bill, he announced the launch of a new website that will help Vermont collect donations for the legal battle that awaits.
"We are asking people all across America, and all across the great state of Vermont, to go to (the website) and make a donation, so that we can win the Vermont Food Fight Fund fight not only for Vermont, but for America."
Other than the expected lawsuit, the ramifications of the legislation are not yet known, though there are plenty of people making speculations. Companies could simply write off Vermont and stop selling products here, Fereday said. Or they may embark on a broader push to use GMO-free ingredients, as General Mills has already done with its Cheerios cereal.
Changing ingredients to avoid labels could be expensive for food makers, since GMO ingredients make up as much as 50 percent of their costs in some cases, Fereday said. Changing their labels would be cheaper.
"Whatever their decision, expect higher costs for the consumer," he said. "Labeling and certification all come with a price tag."
In Washington, D.C., the food industry is pushing Congress to enact legislation that would prohibit states such as Vermont from writing their own GMO labeling bills.
"We support consistent and consumer-centric labeling of food based on facts, not politically motivated, costly and misguided schemes that may lead toward a 50-state patchwork of confusing GMO labeling policies," Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, told Bloomberg.
But David Ropeik, the author of the book "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts," says he thinks the food industry is harming itself by fighting the labeling of GMO foods. He believes the industry should endorse labeling so it can move past the debate.
"By supporting labeling, companies would say, ‘There's no risk, we have nothing to hide,'" he said.
Genetically modified foods are nothing new. Throughout our agricultural history, mankind has selected and optimized foods for their nutrition, their fecundity and their adaptability.
What's different about genetically modified or engineered foods is that the manipulation is done in a lab. Engineers don't need to wait for nature to produce a desired gene; they speed up the process by transferring a gene from one plant or animal to another. Most of the nation's corn and soybeans are genetically engineered to resist pesticides, herbicides and viruses.
There's a bigger debate here than just what goes into the food in the supermarkets.
Shoreham organic vegetable farmer Will Stevens, who also serves in the Vermont, said the labeling bill begins "a conversation about farming methods, food systems," which will lead to "a more informed and engaged consumer."
We're not going to get into the debate over whether GMO foods are hazardous to our health or pose a danger to the environment, because the jury is still out and there is much long-term research that needs to be done.
Unfortunately, that long-term research is being done on unsuspecting guinea pigs. Yes, you guessed it; that includes all of us -- men, women and children.
We should have a right to know what is in our food and we should have the right to choose what we put in our and our children's bodies.
As Ropeik noted, if the industry has nothing to hide, as it maintains, then it would behoove it to come out from behind the curtain and proclaim there is nothing to fear by labeling their food products.
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