States are taking the lead in requiring labels on genetically engineered food as legal battles with the biotech industry loom. The main question: Are GMOs safe?
Jun. 7, 2013
By Dan D’Ambrosio
From Maine to Washington, a growing number of states are taking on the issue of genetically engineered foods, fanning the flames of a decades-old debate about whether these organisms — often called GMOs — are dangerous to human health.
Last month, the Vermont House of Representatives became the first legislative body in the nation to pass a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified organisms, followed weeks later by the Connecticut Senate. Right to Know GMO, which describes itself as a grassroots coalition with members in 37 states, counts 26 states as having introduced labeling bills. The Vermont bill goes to the Senate when it reconvenes in January.
“I think there is very good support in the Senate to move this forward,” said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, lead sponsor of the House bill. “We have been the little state that could. We were the first to ban slavery, the first to pass civil unions. We can be first here.”
The national and international debate about labeling GMOs also has been heating up. Late last month, more than 400 cities around the world, including Montpelier, held a March Against Monsanto. Monsanto, based in St. Louis, is the highest profile manufacturer of genetically modified seeds in the world.
About 90 percent of the corn, cotton, soy beans and sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically engineered, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the trade group representing Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont and other major firms that dominate the industry.
The GMO debate hinges on the question of whether the foods produced from engineered crops are harmful to human health, which has not been definitively answered by science. In the meantime, advocates of labeling say consumers at least have the right to know they’re ingesting GMOs. Labeling opponents, including Monsanto, counter that labeling amounts to a kind of “scarlet letter” that will unfairly stigmatize whatever it touches.
Whole Foods Market isn’t waiting for the health question to be resolved, announcing in March that by 2018, all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms.
“We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” said Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, in a statement.
In Washington state, a referendum on GMO labeling is scheduled for November. A similar referendum in California failed this past November, 53-47, after the biotech industry spent nearly $45 million on opposition advertising.
At the federal level, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a bill in April that would direct the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to “clearly label” genetically engineered foods. Boxer says she has 11 co-sponsors — 11 more than she had in 2000, when she first introduced labeling legislation. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., introduced the House version of the bill.
Boxer also attached two amendments to the Farm Bill, one saying that the United States should join the 64 other nations, including those in the European Union, that have labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods.
The other amendment requires a report in six months from several federal agency heads reviewing the labeling methods used internationally, and the “probable impacts” of having differing labeling requirements passed by states rather than a federal standard.
“As more and more states take action, I believe lawmakers in Washington will realize that Congress and the FDA must ensure that all Americans know what’s in the food they’re eating,” Boxer wrote in an email.
FDA doesn’t see a problem
The FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically engineered foods made from seeds provided by Monsanto and others are not “materially different” from their traditional counterparts and therefore do not have to be labeled — a ruling opponents of GMOs find unconvincing.
“The companies have such complete control over who can do independent research into the nature of these things and their impact that we really don’t know very much,” said Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group. “We don’t know nearly as much as we should.”
Anticipating lawsuits from the biotech industry if states pass labeling laws, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill on May 22 that would guarantee states the right to require labeling on any food or beverage containing GMOs. The amendment also required the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to report to Congress within two years the percentage of food and drinks in the United States that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Sanders’ amendment was rejected the next day, 71-27. Sanders’ senior colleague from Vermont, Democrat Patrick Leahy, voted in favor of the amendment.
“What I wanted to clarify is that states in this country have the right to label,” Sanders said in an interview with the Burlington Free Press. “When you deal with companies like Monsanto, the biotech industry and large food, you’re taking on very powerful special interests, and they will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent labeling.”
Monsanto has clearly stated why it is opposed to labeling, saying mandatory labeling “could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”
The modifications to the DNA of seeds, which started in the mid-1990s, fall into two categories: seeds that have built-in genetic resistance to insects, forgoing the need for insecticides, and seeds that tolerate herbicides, making it possible to spray crops, such as soy beans, that are prone to weeds.
“If you don’t have to put insecticide on a crop, it saves time and money, and it’s better for the environment,” Karen Batra, spokeswoman for BIO, said in an interview. “Herbicide-tolerant varieties allow no-till agriculture. You don’t have to go into the fields and till weeds, which saves fuel and time and keeps nitrogen in the soil.”
Batra said genetic engineering is the fastest-growing technology in the history of agriculture, with upward of 17 million farmers around the world using genetically altered seeds.
The right to know
Rep. Kate Webb, lead sponsor of the bill passed by the Vermont House, denies the intent of the bill is to stigmatize GMOs.
“People are really just asking for the right to know,” Webb said. “We’re not saying you can’t grow or sell them. We want to make a choice. Some of the emerging health concerns are quite concerning.”
What exactly are those health concerns? No one seems to know.
Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is opposed to GMOs, but he says the rigorous testing and long-term studies that would definitively answer the health question have not been done.
“There are two camps,” Hansen said. “Studies funded by industry don’t find problems. Studies that are more independent do find problems that need to be followed up.”
Complicating the picture, the United States has no laws governing the regulation of biotechnology and genetically engineered foods, said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, a national nonprofit advocacy group opposed to GMOs, with offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Portland, Ore.
“Instead we have a loose guidance that was issued in 1986 that told federal agencies to utilize existing authorities,” O’Neil said. “So that’s why the FDA, which has no expertise in agriculture, no expertise in fisheries and no expertise in environmental analysis, are the ones determining the safety of a genetically engineered fish.”
The fish in question is the first genetically engineered animal proposed for human consumption, an Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, Mass. The AquaBounty salmon use a gene from an eel to “flip a switch in the genetics so they grow year-round,” said Karen Batra, the spokeswoman for industry trade group BIO. Salmon whose DNA hasn’t been tinkered with grow only during part of the year.
“Genetically engineered salmon has been under review for 17 years,” Batra said. “How does that company stay in business?”
O’Neil said it has taken 17 years to review the AquaBounty salmon not because the FDA is conducting a robust study, but because there are no laws to guide the process.
“Consumers have zero confidence in federal government regulation and oversight of genetically engineered foods,” O’Neil said. “They know there’s a voluntary safety consultation and that we don’t have laws governing how genetically engineered foods should be regulated.”
Bills rely on trigger clauses
The Vermont labeling bill goes next to the Vermont Senate, which reconvenes in January. Assuming the House and Senate agree on joint legislation, Gov. Peter Shumlin must sign the bill before it becomes law.
Susan Allen, Shumlin’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email that the governor believes Vermonters should know what’s in their food.
“The Governor appreciates the work the House did on its thoughtful GMO labeling bill, keeping Vermont front and center in this discussion, and looks forward to working with the Senate next year as this issue moves forward,” Allen wrote.
Weeks after the Vermont House acted, the Connecticut Senate passed a labeling law, 35-1. The Vermont and Connecticut bills both contain trigger clauses, requiring other states to act first.
In the Vermont version, the effective date of the law would be 18 months after two other states enact labeling legislation “substantially comparable” to the Vermont law, or July 1, 2015, whichever comes first.
In the Connecticut Senate bill, the effective date would be July 1, 2016, or after three states pass similar legislation. The Connecticut House version of the bill had an even more restrictive trigger clause, plus an exemption for farmers grossing less than $1.5 million, and no definite implementation date. Supporters of labeling, such as the nonprofit GMO Free CT, denounced the bill.
The weakened House bill went back to the Connecticut Senate, where legislators and the Governor’s Office worked out a compromise that dropped the exemption for small farmers and required four states — rather than the five envisioned in the original House bill — to enact labeling laws before the Connecticut law takes effect. One of those states must border Connecticut, and the aggregate population of states in the Northeast with labeling laws must exceed 20 million before Connecticut requires labeling.
Still, supporters see the compromise, which now goes back to the House for another vote, as a victory. Tara Cook-Littman, president of GMO Free CT, called the bill “historic” and said it would provide momentum for fellow activists throughout the nation.
Lawsuits on the horizon
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said the reason behind the trigger clauses Vermont and Connecticut included is fear of lawsuits. No one wants to go first.
“When a state forces a company to speak with their labeling, it’s a compelled-speech issue,” Sorrell said. “They say, ‘You’re forcing us to go through the expense to speak and violating our Constitutional right to remain silent.”