The More You GMO

In a nation where 75 percent of processed food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Vermont reignited an already contentious debate in May of last year when it passed a law requiring mandatory GMO labeling. While other states, including Maine and Connecticut, have passed similar legislation, their laws require “triggers” to go into effect, meaning the labeling requirements won’t be put into place until neighboring states also ratify GMO ordinances. Vermont’s rare success in passing a strict labeling bill is the product of nearly two decades of push from consumers living in a state with an immense agricultural presence. The bill, set to come into effect in July 2016, outlines requirements for all genetically modified foods to be labeled with the phrases: “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.” Though the bill’s advocates rejoiced after its passage, victory may very well be short-lived, as corporate interests and the federal government have already begun to push back aggressively against the new law.

In April 2014, around the same time that the bill for GMO labeling passed in Vermont, new legislation opposing labeling was introduced in Congress. The proposal, known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, would place the federal government in charge of food labeling, which could prevent states from having any jurisdiction over food regulation. Another challenge to the law came only a month after Vermont passed the GMO labeling bill, when four major trade associations filed a lawsuit against the state, citing “burdensome new speech requirements and restrictions.”  The presiding judge clarified that the hearing would not focus on GMO safety but on the right to label — weighing the constitutional rights of consumers against those of the plaintiff agribusinesses. The case is a microcosm of the larger debate about GMOs. Safety is not the central reason why labeling should occur; instead, all sides need to accept that consumers have a right to know what is in their food.

Before the mid-1900s, the notion of a genetically engineered organism would have been unfathomable. Mere decades later, GMOs have not only become ubiquitous in the nation’s agriculture and food industries, but have also become normal in the eyes of the everyday consumer. GMOs are widely used to improve yields, enhance nutritional value, give longer shelf life and provide resistance to drought, frost and pests. In addition, genetic modification allows for mass production at lower costs. In a nation where one-sixth of Americans struggle to put food on the table, the advent of GMOs appears promising. However, opponents see downsides to GMOs, saying that they are unhealthy and environmentally harmful.

The question of GMO safety first arose in the 1990s at a meeting between the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. It was then that the Food and Drug Administration’s  (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Foods — former Monsanto lawyer, Michael Taylor — proposed the concept of “substantial equivalence.” The idea would allow foods to be sold without safety tests so long as their chemical compositions did not differ significantly from those of foods already existing in the market. The subsequent adoption of this framework has kept the FDA’s role in food safety testing for GMOs minimal, and thus little substantive information has emerged on the safety of GMOs.

Furthermore, opponents of GMOs fear that the scientific research needed to draw such conclusions is often influenced, and sometimes conducted by, the very companies producing GMO products in the first place. The paucity of evidence in this debate doesn’t lend credence to either side. Agribusiness and entities in the federal government insist that there is no risk associated with GMO products and, in fact, that GMO innovations and technologies make food cheaper and more plentiful. On the other hand, proponents of labeling cite studies pointing to health complications engendered by GMO consumption. Because GMOs contain artificially altered DNA, organic food connoisseurs argue that they are unnatural and can harm consumers. But these are simply speculative claims.

The push for mandatory labeling was born out of the desire to keep consumers informed. “We cannot continue to keep Americans in the dark about the food they eat,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who recently helped reintroduce the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act to Congress. Grassroots movements like the Right to Know campaign — which was instrumental in the passage of the Vermont law — have expressed their stance on the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods as one founded on the “basic right to know what we’re eating and feeding our families.” They argue that labeling neither prevents nor vilifies GMOs, but rather allows consumers to make their own choices.

On the other side, corporations often argue that labeling inherently prejudices consumers, who may not know the benefits of GMOs, against their products. Monsanto — one of world’s largest and most publicly reviled agribusinesses — has staunchly opposed GMO labeling “in the absence of any demonstrated risks.” Groups like Monsanto contend that the FDA has already conducted a multitude of safety tests on genetically engineered foods, thus rendering labeling irrelevant at best and damaging to both business interests and consumers at worst. For agribusinesses, labeling seems like little more than scaremongering.

Even if agribusinesses are not wrong regarding the safety of their products, their wide-reaching influence at the federal level has tainted their credibility. To many, the favorable treatment of GMOs is a smoking gun in the debate over the extensive influence wielded by agribusiness in Washington, DC. Last year, agribusinesses spent over $125 million on lobbying, and their efforts have paid off. The US government has a long history of aggressively subsidizing farmers, and it rarely legislates against the interests of agriculture. Among other victories, agribusinesses have successfully retained exemptions from the Clean Water Act and even last February’s Farm Bill, which repealed $4.5 billion in direct subsidies, though it offered the same amount in crop insurance subsidies while nevertheless slashing food stamps for needy families.

The oft-recited claim that Washington is a revolving door seems to hold true in the agriculture business. In addition to Taylor, the former Monsanto lawyer responsible for creating the FDA standards, Islam Siddiqui, the former Chief Agricultural Negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative, worked as a lobbyist for conglomerated agribusiness from 2001 to 2008. And Dennis DeConcini, a former US Senator from Arizona, previously served as legal counsel to Monsanto. While Monsanto is no stranger to controversy, it has arduously sought to buck its reputation as an industry bully, though its apparent influence in the halls of US decision-making raises questions regarding the impartiality of labeling regulations.

In the Food Guidance Regulations, the FDA takes “responsib[ility] for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled.” By opposing the labeling of GMOs, the FDA contradicts this mission. While adversaries of the law claim that labeling would vilify GMOs, it is equivalent to other labeling practices. Like the caloric content of a food or the list of ingredients, denoting genetic modification offers yet another piece of information about what buyers are consuming and provides a more holistic approach to nutritional labeling.

Moreover, consumers want to be informed. The Right to Know campaign states that more than 90 percent of Americans would prefer the labeling of GMOs. Furthermore, a 2013 New York Times poll determined that 93 percent of respondents supported labeling. Popular support provides additional defense for the labeling movement and Vermont’s new law.

What agribusinesses don’t realize is that labeling could very well be mutually beneficial for manufacturers and consumers. Even if Monsanto’s point that labeling could “imply that food products containing [GMOs] are somehow inferior” has some intuitive validity, the solution is not to outright dismiss labeling or, more importantly, consumers’ rights. Instead, it should be a wake-up call to agribusiness that they need to commit themselves to proving that GMOs are not harmful and to educating the public about their products. As more information emerges about the effects of GMOs, agribusinesses
could be central partners in spurring further research. In the long run, these efforts will present the American public with the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about what they do — or do not — want to eat.

Support for labeling should be premised in consumer knowledge, rather than in arguments about the safety, or lack thereof, of GMOs. GMO labeling provides a needed change to the current food industry; it allows consumers to determine their own choices without being influenced by food corporations. Corporate agribusinesses and a general lack of knowledge about their practices have heavily contributed to the stalling of GMO labeling initiatives, but with a greater push from dedicated states like Vermont and grassroots organizations like the Right to Know, the next apple you buy might just come with a GMO label.

Art by Emily Reif.