Revisiting GMO Labeling

While the issue of GMO labeling has quieted down in Vermont since the Legislature adjourned for the year, the battle is still raging across the country, particularly in Washington State. At City Market we believe in fostering a community of well-informed citizens, and as such, believe that products should be labeled in ways that allow consumers to make informed choices based on their personal values and priorities.  So, in the midst of the calm, let’s take a moment to revisit the GMO labeling debate.

GMOs are crops that have been genetically modified to enhance, add, or subtract certain qualities.  Frequently, genetic engineering is used to create crops that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides, making it easier for farmers to apply chemical products.  Other times, genetic engineering could be important to developing a resistance to a pest that threatens to wipe out a common crop variety (here is a good story about the issues facing orange growers).  And in other instances, genetic engineering is touted as being a way to increase nutrition in staple crops in the developing world (here is a story about the development of Golden Rice).  GMOs are frequently present in the food we eat: in 2009, 93% of the US soybean and canola crops were genetically engineered, as well as 86% of corn, 95% sugar beets, 80% papaya and 13% zucchini.


In order to protect investments in genetic modification technology, biotechnology companies patent their seeds and require signed use agreements from farmers promising not to save seed.  In recent years, seed companies have increasingly become consolidated, to the point where the top three seed companies own 85% of GMO corn patents and 70% of GMO non-corn patents in the US.  Patenting seeds and GMO technology make seed saving obsolete, meaning farmers are forced to purchase more input seed year after year, while the traditional knowledge of seed saving is not passed on to the next generation.  Additionally, seed patents increase risk for farmers in the form of GMO contamination.  If a biotechnology company samples a farmer's crop and finds more than a trace amount of GMO seed, that farmer could be subject to a lawsuit whether or not the seed patent was intentionally or unintentionally violated.  GMO corn varieties have already been found contaminating corn fields in Oaxaca, Mexico, threatening the purity of the traditional corn varieties grown in that region.  In fact, a recently ruling in Mexico has suspended the cultivation of GMO corn in the country due to the “risk of imminent harm to the environment” (read the full article here).

While more than 60 countries regulate and mandate GMO labeling, the US has so far taken a hands-off approach.  US food regulating authorities have used the theory of “substantial equivalence” to justify not labeling or testing GMO food products.  GMOs are frequently compared to their closest traditional counterpart and if they appear to be different but raise no obvious public health concerns, then they are deemed substantially equivalent.  As a rule, the US has declared that GMOs are substantially equivalent to their traditional counterparts.    

So why are biotechnology companies against the labeling of GMO food products?  Opponents of GMO labeling argue that the term “GMO” has now been associated with negative connotations due to the polarized issue of genetic engineering and that labeling products “GMO” will be misinforming consumers through perceived knowledge about GMO technology.  There is the worry that if food is labeled as “produced with genetically engineered ingredients,” consumers will assume those products are not as good as food produced without GMO technology.  Opponents of GMO labeling argue that the label “100% organic” is sufficient to assure consumers that the product is free of GMO ingredients.

Supporters of GMO labeling believe that current labeling requirements are not enough to ensure consumers have enough information to make values based purchases.  While the “organic” label provides some information regarding the methods of production and processing, the different levels of organic labeling (100% organic, organic, made with organic ingredients, less than 70% organic ingredients) complicates the transparency of the use of GMO ingredients.  One option for producers and processors that wish to go beyond organic certification and labeling to specifically address not using GMO ingredients is The Non-GMO Project, which provides independent review and certification of non-GMO food products.  They also verify that contamination from GMO sources has not occurred. However, the independent certification process adds an additional layer of costs that may discourage participation or be exclusionary toward small, less profitable farmers.

A recent report from The Cornucopia Institute mentions a poll that found 70% of Americans are in favor of GMO labeling, and in Vermont, 90% of the population is in favor of GMO labeling.  In response to this overwhelming support, state legislatures are starting to pass state-specific GMO labeling laws (which may be challenged by federal interstate commerce laws).  In Vermont, we saw the passage of a GMO labeling law in the State House in the spring of 2013.  The State Senate will take up the bill at the beginning of 2014.  Connecticut became the first state in the country to officially pass a GMO labeling law, and Washington State recently waged their own legislative battle.  In Washington, as it was in California during the Prop 37 battle, supporters and opponents of labeling laws slung money into advertising campaigns to support their cause.  Those companies that opposed the Washington labeling law spent over $17.5 million dollars on a statewide campaign, while those that supported the labeling law spent only a third of that amount.  The biggest contributor to the opposition of the labeling law has been the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which donated a whopping $5 million (for a useful infographic about supporters and opponents in the Washington fight, click here).

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The GMO labeling discussions will return to Vermont this winter, and a lobbying day has been scheduled at the State House for January 16, 2014.  In the meantime, visit Vermont Right to Know to learn more about what’s happening in Vermont, and Just Label It! to learn more about what is happening around the country.