The decision by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass a bill requiring labels on foods made with ingredients derived from GMO seeds, whether or not there is any detectable level of them in the product, is a dangerous slope to go down.
Before the Senate votes on the bill, they should make sure they have all the facts. This is a decision that will have a significant impact on everyone in the state because Vermont will be the only state in the country to go it alone. So as legislators consider the information presented to them, they should make sure it is conclusive, vetted and well thought through.
And whether you are for or against labeling, there are some facts that seem to be getting lost in the proverbial “he says / she says” debate. For instance, those who are for labeling like to point to Europe as being GMO-free. The truth is that European regulations allow 0.9 percent of GMOs in all foods. But you don’t see that fact widely disseminated.
Other logistical issues haven’t been thought through. Take testing. What exactly will qualify as GMO-free? Many products might meet the standard of non-GMO through the processing they go through, yet their ingredients might contain GMOs.
And then there’s the problem of who will monitor the non-GMO foods. We only have a few health inspectors, and they can barely cover their current workload. We are receiving funding from the Food and Drug Administration for their salaries.
The FDA does not have a policy on whether GMO products should be labeled; therefore the funds we currently receive cannot, and should not, be used to create the GMO police. Where is the money going to come from to create, train and establish this position, and that of a supervisor and administrative person? The reality is, we don’t know because no one’s talking about that.
Vermonters are very proud, and specialty foods play an important role in that attitude. Many specialty food producers are small businesses. Most of the products made by Vermont’s specialty food companies are sold out of state. That means they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage to their competitors who don’t have to label their products.
They will be forced to incur added expense to label their foods. They will have to either pass that cost along to the consumer or take a hit themselves. If they choose the latter, it could potentially prove to be too much to stay in business. When the cost is passed on to the consumer, the business could effectively be priced out of the market.
There will be other repercussions as well. Our choices at the grocery stores will most certainly be limited if this legislation is passed. As it stands now, Vermont would be the only state for which food manufacturers would have to create a special label. While a couple of other states have passed labeling laws, they have done so with the caveat that others states do the same.
It’s a protective measure designed to ensure their individual states don’t suffer consequences. We are a state of roughly 600,000 people — not big by a long shot. Food companies could well decide it’s just not worth it to label their goods just for Vermont, even if that means not selling their products here. Keep in mind that 70-80 percent of food on our grocery shelves has genetically engineered foods in them.
More important, labeling of foods shouldn’t be done on the state level, but rather the federal level. The FDA could create rules or Congress could enact a law.
Several states have tried to enact labeling laws. The bottom line: Many have found consumers don’t want them, and others have decided not to go it alone.
If, after truly understanding and researching all the scientific facts surrounding genetically altered foods, Vermont legislators decide to pass a labeling law, they can do so with a clear conscience. But if they do so based on opinions being presented as facts or logistics not thought through properly, they will have to own the consequences.
Every living thing, including every human being, is a genetically modified organism, or GMO. Evolution has taken place because the DNA genetic code, shared by all life on Earth, is constantly being rearranged in all of us. These insertions, deletions and transpositions in the code result from natural mutagens as well as from the inevitable errors in transcription and translation in our complex cellular machinery that processes millions of three-unit DNA “codons” per second. Many of these mutations are corrected by the cells’ proofreading apparatus, but some are not, and a small percentage of these modifications are incorporated into the organism’s own structure or its offspring.
Unfortunately, nature’s random genetic modifications, while sometimes improving a species’ survival probability, more often produces cancer or one of hundreds of genetic diseases. Our mailboxes are full of requests for donations to fight some of the more widespread of these diseases.
It is a triumph of modern science that we have learned how to improve and correct some of nature’s random products through genetic engineering. GMO technology has already saved millions of people from starvation, blindness and disease. Its promise for the future is immeasurably greater.
I oppose GMO labeling because it will frighten poorly informed people — which includes most of us — away from perfectly safe foods and, more important, it could have a dampening effect on further development of this revolutionary, life-giving technology.
But there is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers.
The Food and Drug Administration says it has no basis for concluding that foods developed by bioengineering techniques present different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. Nevertheless, bills are pending in several states to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients (a referendum to compel such labeling was narrowly defeated in California last November). For now, there seems little reason to make labeling compulsory.
Consumers can already find products free of genetically engineered ingredients, with labels voluntarily placed by the manufacturers.
This is a disturbing story about the abuse of the power of journalism and the trust of the public by one of the most, if not the most, influential food writers in the world.
Michael Pollan is a big deal, arguably more influential on agriculture policy than the Secretary of Agriculture. He is the author of five books, all best sellers, professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the most cited commentators on food related issues in the world, with more than 330,000 followers on Twitter, many of whom consider him a hero. Although the public perception of him is just the opposite, he is not a reputable science journalist or—by his own admission—an objective reporter—on organics or agriculture. Even more startling, Pollan admits—brags even—that he manipulates high profile stories on organics and crop biotechnology, particularly at the New York Times—and that the papers editors are willing dupes.
These are strong allegations, but they are not mine; they are Pollan’s own words.