“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” was a 1975 classic spoof film. But the killer tomatoes are back. During the 2013 session of the Vermont legislature, a bill was introduced requiring special labeling for foods made of or containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). As rewritten in the Agriculture Committee, H.112 passed the House at the end of April, and awaits Senate action in the 2014 session.
This is not the first, or even the second, time that genetically modified food has been debated in Vermont. In 2001 a blanket ban on all GMO foods in Vermont failed because of Constitutional issues related to the Contract and Commerce Clauses. A decade earlier, a ban was debated on the use of Bovine SomatoTropin or BST, a synthetic allomer of a hormone normally fo
und in lactating cows.
When an outright ban foundered in the Vermont Senate, opponents settled on strict labeling. Processors fleeing the expense of parallel distribution of BST Free and conventional milk soon terminated purchases from the minority of dairies using BST hormone. BST opponents thus deftly eliminated their competition from the market place.
The present GMO bill exploits the earlier BST strategy. The findings section of H.112 (the committee rewrite had a temporary caption of H.722) as it emerged from the House Agriculture Committee lays out in four dense pages 30 headings summarizing legal, economic, or constitutional points to justify strict labeling in Vermont. H.112 draws language from statutes proposed in several states — notably Maine — and partly replicates the pending Federal H.R. 3553, “GMO Right To Know Law.” GMOs are expressly defined as a potentially dangerous contaminant.
Scientific evidence for restriction of GMOs is very scant, relying on assertions rather than evidence of causation. The US Centers for Disease Control, which compiles data on illness or death from foods, has no reports of illness caused by consumption of GMOs. The European Union banned GMO crops about 2005; seven years ago the EU Scientific Advisory Commission delegates established a massive statistical and medical research project to report in 2013. Previews indicate that the panel has found no instance of human health problems from GMO foods, and may request that the ban be lifted.
Opposition to GMOs displays a blend of self-serving arguments with objections drawn from folklore, religion, and alternative medicine. Economic objections are the most obviously self-serving. Specialty and niche food suppliers condemn GMOs as causing economic changes in agriculture favorable to large corporate entities, which sell machinery, seeds, and other inputs — the Luddite argument. For instance, H.112: Sec. 5, “Purposes,” argues that blocking GMOs will generate great economic advantage to small farms, to local Vermont processors, and to such ventures as Community Supported Agriculture.
Belief-based opposition to GMOs holds that human intervention in selecting the genetic composition of species is strange, unnatural, and results in humans playing God by distorting a naturally evolved genome. For example H.112, “Definitions,” states that human induced mutations occur “where the donor cells/protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic group, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.” A later section notes that some religions oppose GMOs, and that labeling is therefore obligatory to preserve freedom of conscience.
The definitions of genetic modification in H.112 are logical and syntactical muddles. Their confusion could make the retailing of food in Vermont very unattractive. Food crop breeders employ at least six genetic techniques, differing mainly in the equipment used. The law singles just one technique out for labeling.
Given the passionate intensity of opposition, why should Vermont farmers or consumers bother to adopt GMO crops? The benefits of modern genetic crop improvement flow to the world in general, and to the Vermont public specifically. The world food crisis first predicted by Paul Ehrlich in 1970 has failed to materialize largely because improved crop genetics have increased food production both in developed and developing countries. GMO crops have allowed great reduction across the US of persistent herbicides, and have curtailed the broadcast use of several insecticides. Genetic improvement has reversed the loss of important crops decimated by viruses and fungi. GMOs have improved the lives of millions of people.
Although Vermont’s choice will impact less than 1% of US gross agricultural output, these principles are worth debating, because the GMO labeling requirements will have a significant economic impact inside Vermont. Cost to consumers of a basic market basket of food is likely to increase, and wholesale distribution costs are likely to rise.
The Vermont proposal require the labels “Contains GMO” if any ingredient present in greater than trace amounts cannot be documented as GMO free. Nor could a food product with any content of GMO above ½ of 1% could contain the word “Natural” in the label.
Though probably unenforceable in Interstate Commerce, a Vermont based cook would have to devise elaborate procurement arrangements to make sure that all the minor ingredients are also totally GMO free. Will the consuming public tolerate such increase in cost? Activists argue that Vermont consumers will be eager to shun the “Contains GMO” label. Many Vermonters may avoid the issue entirely by shopping in New Hampshire.
A far less intrusive solution would enable producers of GMO-free crops to so label their produce. Objectors would thus have all the information needed for their choice, but anti-GMO growers would not be allowed to coerce their competitors into carrying advertising for GMO-free producers on the label.