By Kevin Joseph Ryan
This past April, the Vermont Legislature’s Agricultural Committee voted 9-1 to require all retailers of food in Vermont to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO). However, that bill stalled in the Judiciary Committee as the session ended and no such law was passed. The Agriculture Committee slaved over the bill for months and took hour upon hour of expert testimony to get the bill passed, and rallies were held on the Statehouse Lawn by VPIRG and the Cedar Circle Farm with hundreds demanding this law. The frustration when the bill failed was palpable. Then, this past week, a strange thing happened. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tried to insert an amendment into the Federal Farm Bill that would allow states to label GMO food. Wait…. Did the Vermont Legislature waste its time trying to get the bill passed beforehand?
The Federal Farm Bill (S.3240) must be passed by Congress every five years to continue farm subsidies and re-authorize farming regulation. With that time now upon us, Sanders on June 14th introduced the Amendment (S.A. 2310), which would allow states to require that all GMO food be labeled. As Sanders stated in testimony before the Senate this week, “When a mother goes to the store, and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know, what she is feeding her child.” While Mr. Sanders is quite correct in that, the Vermont bill this past year would not have accomplished this, creating several exceptions for GMO foods, including those served in restaurants, meat raised on GMO grains, certified organic food containing GMOs and even food used in medicine.
The Sanders Amendment would not have required any companies to actually label foods with GMO, but would have allowed states to make such requirements. Sanders claimed that the reason Vermont failed to pass the labeling bill this past year was because the food giant Monsanto threatened to sue Vermont, a claim which was debunked by TNR earlier this year. In fact, no such threat came from anyone. Representatives of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, when asked, did inform the state that litigation was likely, given the fact that a very similar labeling law was struck down by the Second Circuit Court of appeals in 1996.
The Amendment defined “Genetic Engineering” of food to include any “…process that alters an organism at the molecular or cellular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes,” but excluded hybridization and in-vitro fertilization, both of which are not possible under natural conditions and both of which indeed do, alter organisms at the molecular level. Wisely, this amendment was voted down the Democrat controlled Senate, Thursday, June 21, by a vote of 26-73. While even liberal Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) voted against, Vermont’s own Patrick Leahy (D-VT) voted in favor of this deeply flawed amendment.
As there is currently no prohibition against states requiring labels of GMO food, the purpose of this amendment proposal remains a mystery. It did not require GMO labeling, it did not prevent judiciary review of any labeling law, and it did not request any studies of danger from GMO foods. In fact, Senator Sanders pointed out, “There has never been mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered crops…”, so why he did not call for such a study seems strange. It should be noted, however, that the Federal Food and Drug Administration have never required mandatory testing of any food before it is sold and one such study on GMO food, sponsored by Greenpeace, showed that cancer levels in animals actually went down after GMO consumption increased. Inquires to Sanders’ offices as to the reasons behind the amendment went unanswered.
Bernie did testify that in the absence of mandated GMO food studies, “For all intents and purposes, the long term health study on GE food, is being done on the American people.” This would be correct. The American people have been eating genetically modified food in the form of animal and plant husbandry for hundreds of years and for the past twenty years have eaten GMO food through laboratory processes, with no proven health issues.
Even still, other than to gain a leg up on an election year issue, there seems to be no reason for Sanders to have brought up this GMO amendment, especially given that a state could pass a law right now, if it wanted, with no permission from Congress. However, fear stirred up among the public has made GMO labeling popular. Had his amendment worked out, a wild rumor overheard by TNR had Bernie Sanders next introducing a law allowing Starbuck’s to sell coffee.