The producers of genetically engineered food are taking their fight to Congress to avoid the labelling requirements of Vermont and potentially other states. On May 8, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin signed H. 112 into law, which requires labeling on all food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold in Vermont by July 2016. Maine and Connecticut also have GMO labeling laws, but their requirements do not apply until several other states also have similar disclosure rules on the books.
Many scientific studies support the proposition that food produced through genetic engineering food remains as safe as any other food product. Unlike the situation of the tobacco companies beginning in the 1960’s, the GMO food producers are not really fighting a tide of scientific evidence that genetically engineered food causes cancer, heart disease or any other condition. In fact, the weight of scientific evidence is to the contrary. The issue is more that the proponents of GMO food have not done enough to prove to skeptics that the food is safe. Many people, including some scientists, believe the potential for risk is great when inserting unknown products or substances into the food chain; therefore, the standard of scientific proof required for safety assurance should be higher as well. The foods with ingredients produced through genetic engineering are commonly found on the grocery store shelves and consumers are unaware of which products contain them.
Even in the face of a plethora of scientific studies saying GMO foodstuffs are safe, producers of organic foods and their supporter appear to be winning the public relations battle regarding the safety of engineered foods. Perhaps many consumers do not believe that large agribusinesses can be trusted or that something is inherently wrong with GMO food even if unproven. The movement to require labeling of GMO food could also be a response to the agribusinesses going too far in many instances by calling GMO products “natural” when they clearly are not. The producers argue for consumer reasonableness when they overstate the natural status of their products. This overstatement on the part of GMO producers engenders distrust.
Instead of directly fighting the battle of public opinion to get around the Vermont requirements, the producers of genetically engineered foods are resorting to the mega business playbook of having Congress do their bidding. Representative Mike Pompeo (R –Kan.) introduced H.R. 4432 in Congress, which would establish a federal law regarding GMO food labeling that would supercede the state requirements if it becomes law. In effect, under the provisions of Pompeo’s proposal, GMO foods are only labelled if containing ingredients found to actually be unsafe or materially different from non-genetically engineered foods. Proponents argue that GMO foods do not require as many pesticides to produce and lower the cost of production.
Those in favor of GMO labeling fear that political contributions by Monsanto and other members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) will push Congress toward enacting H.B. 4432 in order to disable the movement toward genetic engineering disclosure occurring in many states. In all likelihood, the GMA will spearhead a legal challenge to Vermont’s law in order to prevent the disclosure requirements from ever happening by 2016. Even with a large amount of scientific evidence supporting their cause, the legislative and court efforts by the large agribusinesses further raise the GMO danger suspicions of those in support of labeling.
While proponents of the new Vermont law applaud its passage, the battle over labeling for foods with ingredients produced through genetic engineering will rage on in Congress as agribusiness producers push for federal legislative action to blunt the state law. Those on both sides of the debate will watch the situation closely as Congress considers Rep. Pompeo’s proposal. While the debate is ongoing, consumers will continue to purchase food with genetically engineered ingredients marked on the label as “natural.”
By William Costolo