by Kevin Joseph Ryan
It comes as no wonder that a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) labeling bill (H.277), has become a hot button issue in the Vermont State House this year. In a year with the economy still damaged and taxes on the rise, Vermont Democrats and Leftists need some hope for November. Surveys do show most people still want safe food.
Genetically modified foods are defined by some as being those altered chemically versus created through traditional agricultural husbandry – in the lab instead of in the barn, so to speak. The introduction of GMO crops in North America has increased exponentially. Today, 85%-95% of soybean, cotton, canola and corn produced and consumed in the United States could be said to be GMO.
Consumers struggle to understand what is a genetically modified food and what is not. Confusion and an almost deliberate manipulation of the meaning of GMO has led to strong uncertainty in the eyes of the public as to the safety of such foods. The Federal Food and Drug Administration has found such foods to be “generally regarded as safe.” Others have referred to them as “Frankenfoods.” While this may sound frightening, effectively, genetic modification of plant and animal breeds and strains has been occurring for hundreds of years, even before the dawn of modern genetics.
Have you eaten an Angus steak? A genetically modified food that is the result of the breeding of Angus Cattle. A beefsteak tomato? Also, genetically modified to a particular size, shape and flavor. So why is there any controversy regarding this issue? Due to a difference in how some define GMO, they would discount any connection between traditional agriculture techniques and GMO’s. According to Steven Druker, president and executive director of the Alliance for Biointegrity, “The only reason you are assembled considering a bill on labeling is because these foods are allowed on the market illegally.” This statement was introduced in testimony to the Vermont House Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
Mr. Druker, an attorney, considers a food product which has been altered chemically to be a food additive, rather than a food itself. He uses the terms “food” and “additive” interchangeably when explaining this concept, but maintains the Federal law concerning allowing such foods is clear: if something is added to food it must be tested, and GMO’s weren’t. The FDA has a different opinion, defining an additive as “any substance the intended use of which results…in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristic of any food.”
Druker sued the FDA in Federal Court in 1998 to dispute the policy statement that GMO’s were “substantially similar” to traditional foods, and that they are “generally regarded as safe”. Druker failed to make his case, and lost that suit in 2000, but has developed a cottage industry supporting his claim ever since. “But they aren’t. They can’t be,” Druker said. “The legal definition of ‘generally recognized as safe’ is an overwhelming consensus, but there isn’t.” Druker cited nine scientists joining his lawsuit as evidence that there is scientific doubt regarding GMO’s.
Due to this seemingly deliberate confusion among the public regarding GMO’s, the issue over the labeling of such foods has become a political wedge issue. This is not the first time Vermont has been involved with a similar situation, as back in 1996, Vermont mandated the labeling of milk produced with a hormone known as BST, which was similarly stuck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, in that case, as an unconstitutional ban on free speech, created merely to satisfy “consumer curiosity”.
The Left’s political argument regarding labeling of foods creating controversy is typically framed in the following manner: If the experts, government or courts rule that the controversial foods are not safe, then the left-wing “consumer advocates” were right all along. If any of those entities disagree and find the foods safe, then it is clear they are in the thrall of big business. Heads, we win, tails, you lose. No, thank you.
Monsanto Foods is frequently cited as a boogeyman in many of these cases, with the Vermont GMO labeling bill being no exception. A recent article swept the internet this past week, authored by Will Allen of Thetford, entitled, “Monsanto Threatens to Sue Vermont.” Will Allen termed the bill “popular” and “overwhelmingly supported”, despite only slim 6-5 majority of the Ag Committee showing even preliminary support for the mandate. He claimed that in testimony to the House Ag Committee on March 15th, a “Monsanto representative recently threatened a public official.” In reality, nothing of the kind occurred. Margaret Laggis, a food industry lobbyist, stated that should the labeling bill pass, basic seeds for corn and bean crops would be unavailable in Vermont, and Monsanto would likely take the issue to court to prevent the State from violating their free speech and to keep the public from being unduly terrified of their food.
Since it is unlikely that any GMO labeling law would survive court scrutiny, the only issue remaining for the House Ag Committee is whether GMO’s actually are a health threat, or not. Of course, if they are, Vermonters must be informed. However, this is not by any means clear. The proponents of GMO labeling, such as Druker and Michael Hanson of Consumer Union, disagree with the FDA as to whether GMO’s are an additive or an actual food. Former House AG chair David Zuckerman, makes the claim that even animals who are not a GMO product, are still GMOs, stating, “So unless those animals are eating GMO-free grain or organic grain, one is still consuming food that is produced primarily with GMO.”
Even if the labeling bill were to pass the Vermont Statehouse tomorrow and become law, it reveals numerous exceptions to labeling and disclosure. Animals fed on GMO crops would not be labeled as GMO’s, nor would one be required to label food GMO is the inclusion of such was unintentional. Restaurants would likewise be not required to label GMO served food. If GMO’s are in fact a health issue, would not the Vermont public best be served by requiring disclosure on all such foods?
The basis for any form of concern in consuming GMO’s remains speculative. Opponents basically say that unlike traditionally bred animals or plants, GMO’s as defined “raise concerns”, “may be found to pose health risks” or “may lead to cancer”. Most in favor of labeling simply say the risk lies in that “We just don’t know what the health risks are with GMO’s.”
While MSNBC found that 93% of adults want GMO food labeled, Pew research found that only a third of consumers were very concerned with GMO’s. If we don’t know what the health risks are, and most people don’t care that much, we are left with the question of why lawmakers would spend their time on a controversial, unconstitutional bill that would only serve to make Vermont’s consumers afraid of their own food? The answer seems to be familiar. Leftists never like to let a crisis go to waste.
The House Agriculture Committee will hold addtional hearings on this issue April 12th from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at the Statehouse.