The future of Connecticut’s law mandating the labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms has been thrown in doubt by Congress and a court. And that’s just fine. The law is needless.
The law — which has never taken effect — may be nullified. The law’s supporters are calling this threat a victory of big agribusiness and the supermarket lobby over consumers. In fact, nullifying the law would be a victory of common sense over ill-informed fretting.
A federal appeals court in New York City will soon hear a challenge to Vermont’s GMO-labeling law, which is similar to Connecticut’s. And the U.S. Senate may pass a bill to stop states from requiring GMO labels. The House has already done so.
No Lack of Evidence
After more than 2,000 studies, foods made with GMOs have been shown to be just as safe as food created by natural genetic selection. That hasn’t stopped the fearmongering by talk show hosts and the publication of GMO scare books.
According to a 2012 report by the American Medical Association, “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”
GMO labeling is framed by its advocates as a consumer-friendly issue, however — which is why some politicians continue to back it even as the evidence shows it’s entirely unnecessary.
So what’s wrong with providing consumers with information about the products they buy?
In most cases, nothing. Having more information often leads to a wiser purchase.
But mandating the labeling of foods as genetically modified implies that they are somehow dangerous and feeds into anti-scientific ignorance. It’s in the same category as the anti-vaccination mania, fear of fluoridation and the widespread (yet incorrect) belief that climate change is a hoax.
The reason Connecticut’s GMO-labeling law is in limbo is that in 2013, our legislators wisely required that four other states enact similar laws before ours takes effect. These four states must be in the Northeast and have a combined population of 20 million. At least one of the four must abut Connecticut.
Unsurprisingly, given all the criteria, this has yet to happen.
The grocery industry and agrochemical companies like Monsanto have indeed lobbied hard against GMO labeling, saying the goal of proponents is to ban GMO foods altogether. The proponents, for their part, say these companies are putting profits ahead of public safety.
In this case, the companies have independent research on their side.
As for labeling, it is already easy for consumers to know a product’s genetic makeup. Non-engineered items routinely carry the label “USDA Organic.” Anything else can safely be assumed to have GMOs.
The fate of Connecticut’s 2-year-old law to require the labeling of foods made from genetically modified organisms may soon be decided, either in a federal courtroom or in Congress.
A federal appeals court in New York City is scheduled to hear oral arguments this week, in a challenge to Vermont’s GMO law. If the food industry wins in that case, Connecticut’s labeling statute would also be in jeopardy.
But the greatest threat to GMO labeling laws in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine now appears to be in Congress. Responding to an intense lobbying effort by the grocery industry and pro-GMO companies like Monsanto, the House voted 275-150 in July for legislation that would stop individual states from requiring GMO food labeling.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who voted against that bill, said it appears likely the Senate will follow suit. “The House vote is a pretty good measuring stick,” Courtney said of the measure’s chances in the Senate.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is pushing hard for federal action to stop states from acting individually on GMO labeling, are sounding confident.
Mike Gruber senior vice president with the grocery industry lobbying group, said a Senate committee is set to take up the GMO issue at an Oct. 21 hearing and that there is strong bipartisan support for legislation to overturn individual state GMO laws like Connecticut’s.
“We would like to get this whole issue resolved before the end of the year,” Gruber said. The food industry insists there is no health or safety need to tell consumers that a food contains genetically modified organisms, that scientific studies show GMOs are just as good as ‘natural’ foods, and argue that putting on GMO labels would only confuse people and push up food costs for everyone.
Anti-GMO activists are calling the federal legislation the “Deny American the Right to Know,” or DARK Act. They cite numerous polls showing that GMO food labeling is supported by a majority of Americans.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said all indications are that it will be “an uphill battle” to stop the industry-backed GMO legislation from winning Senate approval.
“I am ready and eager to work against it,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal is supporting a Democratic bill that would order the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require GMO labels for genetically modified foods. But passage of that legislation in a Republican-controlled Senate appears unlikely.
Recent decisions by some major food manufacturers and retailers to begin marketing non-GMO products reflect the growing popularity of organic and non-processed and so-called natural foods. In July, the Obama administration also announced that it’s planning to update the way the federal government regulates GMOs and other biotechnology products.
According to a USA Today report, an estimated 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop involves GMOs. Almost
the same percentage of America’s soybeans are genetically modified and about 88 percent of corn used as feed for cattle, pigs and chickens is grown from GMO seeds.
The GMO labeling law that passed in Connecticut’s General Assembly in 2013 was one of the first in the nation and had some highly unusual conditions attached. Connecticut’s law can’t take effect until at least four other states also approve GMO labeling, the combined population of those states must equal at least 20 million and at least one of those states must border Connecticut.
Massachusetts lawmakers are now poised to fulfill at least one of those conditions by passing GMO labeling legislation, according to two key supporters of that bill.
According to Massachusetts Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, 154 of her state’s 200 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of the GMO bill. Rep. Todd Smola, a Republican from Warren, Mass., said backers of the legislation “have a pretty good shot this time” of winning passage.
In New York, anti-GMO activists say they plan to make another try in 2016 to push through their own labeling bill. Stacie Orell, a spokeswoman for GMO Free New York, predicted there is a good chance to win approval in the New York Assembly but added that the Republican-controlled Senate looks “a little tougher.”
Among the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling laws are the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food
Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers .
Those four industry organizations are plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which is set to take effect in July 2016.
Earlier this year, a federal judge rejected the industry groups’ request for an injunction to stop the Vermont statute from taking effect while the lawsuit is being litigated. The case is now before the U.S. Second Court of Appeals in New York City.
Connecticut is one of eight states that have filed briefs in support of Vermont in the GMO lawsuit.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said the lawsuit hinges on the issues “of free speech and legislative prerogatives.”
In a brief filed with the appeals court in late August, Jepsen’s legal staff argued that allowing the food industry groups to block Vermont’s law “threatens to undermine a wide range of labeling and public reporting laws” for food, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods and services.
Gruber said the Vermont law is “proving itself to be very disruptive” because food producers, wholesalers and retailers are “scrambling to figure out how to comply” with the statute’s provisions. They also desperately want to avoid the law’s potential fines, which could amount to $1,000 per day per product.
GMO labeling, said Gruber, “is designed to mislead consumers that these [GMO] products are unsafe.”
Lawmakers and activists in New York, Massachusetts and other states considering GMO labeling laws argue that, if GMO products are as wholesome and safe as the food industry claims, telling consumers which foods are genetically modified shouldn’t be a big deal.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” said Smola, who has been pushing for GMO food labeling for years. “We’re trying to educate the public to let them make their own decisions. That’s the American way.”