Sunday, April 03, 2016

Vermont calls Big Food's bluff on GMO labels

Large food processors have long claimed that state laws forcing them to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would lead to 1) higher prices for consumers who would end up paying the cost of special labeling for one or just a few states and/or 2) fewer food choices as processors simply withdrew some or all of their products from states requiring labeling.

It seems that the state of Vermont has now called their bluff and won.

Neither scenario appears likely when Vermont's labeling law for products containing genetically engineered ingredients goes into effect on July 1. Instead, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., ConAgra Food Inc., Mars Inc. and Campbell Soup Company have announced they will use one label that is in accordance with Vermont law for all markets for products containing genetically engineered ingredients and thus avoid the cost and logistical hassle of separate labels and special handling for products bound for Vermont. This was always going to be the simplest way to comply, and Vermont's governor knew it. Expect more companies to follow suit soon.

The fate of Vermont's labeling law for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients--commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOs--had hung in the balance as a court challenge and federal legislation threatened to overturn it.

But, last year a federal judge decided that Vermont's law was constitutional and refused to issue an injunction to prevent its implementation. This year the U.S. Congress considered a voluntary GMO labeling law that would have pre-empted the Vermont law. But, the federal legislation failed to pass the Senate.

It seems unlikely that the Congress will pass any bill soon enough to prevent the Vermont law from going into effect, making it the de facto GMO labeling standard for the nation. That doesn't mean Congress won't act later.

The industry argues that such labeling implies that there is something wrong with GMO foods when most scientists agree that they're safe. Of course, not all scientists agree, and that's not unusual in any area involving consumer safety.

But the word "safe" has been construed too narrowly in most cases to mean simply whether a GMO plant or animal is safe for human consumption. There are many other issues including the danger of herbicides. The widely used herbicide glyphosate, known by the trade name Roundup, is designed for use with glyphosate-resistant GMO crops including corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, and alfalfa. Glyphosate kills unwanted weeds chemically while leaving the crops themselves unharmed. But glyphosate, which was once thought to biograde rapidly, turns out to be far more persistent in the environment than previously believed. It is now being found in significant quantities in soil, food and water.

The same pesticide is thought to have created superweeds that are now immune to it and have spread throughout areas where glyphosate has been used. The superweeds also affect farms growing conventional non-GMO crops and those growing organic crops.

But perhaps most troubling is the claim by GMO seed companies that they know exactly what they are doing. All of GMO science is based on the notion that one gene produces one protein. If true, GMO seed companies might be correct that they know exactly what traits they are transferring from one species to another. But it has long been known that one gene can produce multiple proteins and that therefore gene expression cannot be so easily predicted.

It is this unpredictability and other factors that make GMO crops a global systemic risk. GMO crops are planted worldwide with little testing meaning any ill effects will be visited on the entire food system. This is the opposite of nature's careful culling of genetic varieties in local areas for fitness over many generations. Novel DNA introduced into the environment can manifest hidden risks that could result in crop failures. And, a worldwide failure of something as central to the current human diet as soybeans would be nothing short of catastrophic.

GMO plants are, of course, self-propagating which means we can't limit their spread. In other words, we can't call them back from the environment if there is a problem. And, their genes contaminate non-GMO species including organic crops which are by definition supposed to be free of GMO genetic material.

All of these factors beyond safety for human consumption are legitimate concerns for consumers. This is an age when consumers want to know not only what is in their food, but how it is produced and by whom. GMO labeling offers them an opportunity to choose based on these broader concerns.

It's quite possible that the Congress will pre-empt mandatory labeling laws in states at some point. But if it doesn't act soon, GMO labeling may become such common practice that any act of Congress will be largely irrelevant.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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