GMO labeling law could do less harm (and good) than expected


There has been much ado about genetically modified organisms in the last days of the recently completed legislative session. Huzzahs and celebrations from one side, gnashing of teeth from the other.

"It's law," proclaimed Gov. Peter Shumlin at a ceremony on the Statehouse steps where he signed the bill requiring foods made with GMOs to be so labeled.

"Vermonters will have the right to know what's in their food," Shumlin exulted to supporters of the new law. "We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill."

No it didn't, responded the apparently irate lobbyists and executives of the grocery and biotech industries. Their message was equally terse: "We'll sue."

And did nobody wonder whether either the celebration or the outrage was worth all the fuss?

To start with, consider this list of the evidence that GMO-produced food makes people sick:

That was it.

No, you didn't miss it. There isn't any.

Nor is there much convincing evidence that GMO crops degrade the environment. Some scientists suspect GMOs could be one of several causes of the recent decline of bee colonies. But so far this suspicion is supported by conjecture, not data.

But GMO's benefits seem to be as overblown as its dangers. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report issued earlier this year reported that the data did not support claims that GMOs increase agricultural productivity.

"In fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties," reported the Department's Economic Research Service.

As the bill's opponents claim, its passage could raise the price of some products. The labeling alone will cost something, and that cost is likely to be passed on the consumers.

But according to a study by two professors at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University (and this is one of the studies cited by opponents of the legislation) that cost would be barely noticeable. Shoppers would really pay more, the study said - perhaps hundreds of dollars a year more - as they rejected the newly labeled GMO-produced foods and bought "non-GMO ingredients" or organic products.

But the bill does not ban genetically modified foods. They will still be on the shelves - labeled - waiting for buyers.

Who will apparently keep buying. More than 60 countries around the world already require labeling of GMO products, which continue to sell briskly in those countries.

In short, Vermont's new law - even if not overturned by the courts -- might end up doing far less good than its backers hope and far less harm than its opponents fear.

So why the furor? Well, the biotech and grocery businesses don't want to risk even a small loss of business. Besides, people who think they are doing good for the world don't like to be told that they're doing it harm.

And there's no doubt that these businesses think that GMOs are not only profitable for their member corporations, but beneficial for the world. A statement by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (at whose annual convention former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver the keynote address next month) said that GMO crops "have enabled farmers to produce more on less land with fewer pesticide applications, less water and reduced on-farm fuel use." As mentioned, less pesticide use. As not mentioned, considerably more herbicide use. In this debate, as in so many others, each side picks and chooses which (and whose) data to emphasize.

As to the ardor of the anti-GMO forces which guided the bill through the Legislature, there is one easy explanation for their enthusiasm: the public is overwhelmingly behind them. Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, said this was one of the few pieces of legislation in his experience that stemmed from spontaneous public support less than from established political organizations.

Zuckerman may have been overstating his case a bit. Vermont's influential environmental and consumer groups helped mobilize support for the bill. But that wasn't a hard job. By any measurement, GMO labeling is the people's choice.

But why? If the labeling is unlikely to diminish the use of genetically modified organisms, and if GMO produced foods have not been proven to do any harm, what explains the intensity of those who want to label them, and eventually abolish them?

Consider the possibility that opposition to GMOs is not just opposition to GMOs, but is part of a broader reaction against what is happening to farms and to food. The farmer was once America's quintessential independent operative, or at least so it seemed (actually, he never was, but that's a whole separate subject).

Government subsidies and corporate standardization long ago rendered that image something of an anachronism, but GMO use completely destroys it. The farmer who contracts with Monsanto to use its Roundup herbicide also agrees to buy all seeds for his new crop from the company, making him less an independent operative than a corporate employee.

Meanwhile, the food system has become increasingly mass-produced and standardized, and in the process often both less nourishing and less tasty. To many people, GMOs are part of the general "industrialization" of the food supply - the growth of processed foods, so many of them chock-full of the fats, sugars, and salts that help explain why so many Americans are overweight or even obese; the spread of fast-food chains which promote "supersized" fatty (and mostly dull) sandwiches and sugared drinks.

In reaction, more people are making greater efforts to buy what they call "real food": vegetables and fruits grown locally (organically or not); meat from steers which graze in pastures or chickens which eat bugs in the barnyard instead of being kept in small boxes. All this started as a tiny and rather elite minority. It remains a minority, but no longer as tiny, and therefore no longer as limited to a cultural elite.

That's because there's nothing elite about food. As Zuckerman said, explaining the public support for the labeling bill, "food is basic." Everybody has to eat, so it's no wonder that most people care about what they eat. Were GMOs the only sign of the growing corporatization of the food supply, they might not arouse so much concern. But they are not, and so they do.


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