By Kevin Joseph Ryan
In roughly three weeks, Vermont will elect the Attorney General who will legally guide the state through the next legislative session. Democrat Bill Sorrell would like to talk about his accomplishments as the current Attorney General in areas of consumer protection and environmental clean-up. Republican Jack McMullen would like to tell you how he will be much tougher on crime then Sorrell has been. However, there are a few issues we can predict will be back in the Legislature in 2013, as if we had a crystal ball. GMO labeling is one of those issues, and the next Attorney General will be dealing with it.
In 2012, HR 722, a bill to label food products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s, failed to pass the Vermont House. While the bill was confusing and riddled with exceptions, the main cause for the failure to pass the legislation was stated to be fear of a lawsuit from Monsanto, a national producer of GMO seed and food products. This concern was voiced loudly by Vermont Public Interest Research Group, organic farmers such as Cedar Circle Farms of Thetford and ultimately, Attorney General Bill Sorrell. While no such threat had been made, Representatives of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, of which Monsanto is a member, said such an action would be likely.
When TNR spoke with current AG Sorrell regarding this issue, he reiterated his concern. “The question is, if you mandate the labeling, does that run afoul of our current US constitutional issues on compelled commercial speech?” Sorrel told TNR. “We have been counseling caution to the legislature that this could be another BGH [Bovine Growth Hormone] or RBST case where we would invite litigation and we might well lose or it , or, on the other hand, could be similar to the mandatory labeling of mercury in consumer products.” In 1993, Vermont lost a federal appeal on a challenge to their requirement that food producers label dairy items containing Bovine Growth Hormone.
When asked if the Vermont GMO labeling effort would survive court challenge, Sorrel noted, ”I think an awful lot of legal scholars, for example Cheryl Hanna from Vermont law school, who teaches constitutional law, at an event earlier this year, said our GMO labeling law would be dead on arrival in Federal Court.” Ms. Hanna has said that similar prior cases have lost due to federal preemption of food regulation and a lack of proof of consumer harm.
Both Sorrell and McMullen are in favor of GMO labeling, however, and Sorrell has a plan. “There’s a question about what do consumers consider to be GMO…. What we intend to take a look at (and do some consumer surveys) is the use of the term “natural” to describe a product. And what does the average consumer think when he or she reads the term “natural” in terms of whether that product contains GMO’s or not. And, it is possible if we had the evidence from consumer surveys, if in fact the average consumer thinks that means no GMO’s, then it’s possible we have the basis for some sort of enforcement action under our existing laws”
Republican Jack McMullen recommends a far more direct course of action. “He [Sorrell] thinks Monsanto will sue. That’s what he’s worried about, because they have sued other legislatures. I would take Monsanto to the cleaners.” When informed that legal representatives of Monsanto’s industry association had spoken about a court challenge, and not Monsanto itself, McMullen asked, “Well, who funds them?”
McMullen poses the question, “Tell me again why you or I can’t know what’s in our food? If there’s any question whatsoever?” He gave his position as follows, “The allegation by the industry is this is just, we’ve just injected a gene here that makes it easy to make, or makes it hard for insects to eat it, or whatever the claim. It metabolizes differently, it digests differently. There is evidence in animals that it induces cancers because you‘re putting insect poisons basically, that the insects eat and they don’t like it or they die, in a food product that’s going into your stomach. I’m not saying its proven, but there’s certainly suspicion.”
There remain questions as to whether the evidence regarding the actual harm of GMO foods is real, or a scare tactic of the organic food industry to promote their own products. It is known that following GMO labeling in France, sales of organic food skyrocketed by over 20% within only a few years. In September, the Government of Russia banned American GMO imports as dangerous to human health, but Russian has long banned American grain and corn imports only allowing them at all this summer in order to gain entry into the World Trade Association. The issue of GMO’s there may be a red herring.
It is certain this issue is a political hot button for many people, with polls consistently showing over 90% support for mandatory labeling. GMO’s remain difficult to define as to their specific content, as in what chemicals make them up and exactly what their impact is on the human body. This has led to widespread speculation, and hard evidence is hard to come by, while studies funded by both food producers and proponents of labeling are issued almost by the month. McMullen thinks this may help us get to the bottom of the questions involved for the food industry. “Maybe they’ll do some education, instead of stonewalling,” McMullen said.