The Vermont state legislature is inching closer to passing a bill requiring labels on all products containing genetically-modified organisms (GMOs); but advocates are concerned that powerful agribusiness firms, like Monsanto, will succeed in stalling the bill and blocking consumers’ rights to know what is in their food.
“Today, 80 percent of all packaged foods sold in this country are products of genetic engineering, yet it is extremely difficult for Vermonters to make informed choices about these products because they are not labeled, or are mislabeled as natural,” Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), lead sponsor of the labeling bill, told the House Agriculture Committee.
Roughly 300 people turned out for a public hearing before the House Agriculture Committee earlier this month, where more than 100 attendees took turns advocating in favor of the controversial GMO labeling bill. “We have a right to uncontaminated agriculture in this state,” Peggy Luhrs of the Burlington Free Press told the committee at the hearing.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotechnology organization with over 1,100 members, strongly opposed the bill, claiming that the process is safe and regulated. BIO member and biotech giant Monsanto even threatened to sue the state of Vermont if the bill is passed.
Organic farmer Jack Lazor form Butterworks Farm testified on the phone, saying, “If their [biotech companies’] products are so good and so helpful and nutritious, I would think they would want consumers to know about them.”
The bill, known as the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (H-722), passed the House Agriculture Committee on Friday in a 9-1 vote. However, the vote likely comes too late in the legislative session for a successful vote in Congress.
Vermont is one of several states pushing to require labeling of GMO products. The California Ballot Initiative to Label GMOs in Our Food campaign has been working for months to gather enough signatures to put the their own Right to Know act on the ballot in the 2012 elections. Washington and Michigan are also seeking Right to Know acts for GMO labeling.
What’s the problem with GMOs?
According to a 2010 survey by Thomson Reuters, over 90 percent of respondents said they believe genetically engineered foods should be labeled. While 69 percent of respondents said they were aware that GMOs were sold in stores, 64 percent said they did not know whether GMOs were safe.
Over 50 countries worldwide, including Australia, Japan and all of the countries in the EU, place strict restrictions and/or bans on the production and sale of GMOs. The United States, however, does not acknowledge any health risks related to GMOs and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not require health studies or safety testing of genetically engineered (GE) food.
The chemical company, BASF, is among the companies banned in Europe. BASF recently relocated its biotech division from Germany to North Carolina where it will continue producing GMOs for US consumers.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, osteopathic physician and New York Times bestselling author wrote in an article on his natural health website, “The general lack of awareness about genetically engineered foods has allowed biotech giants like Monsanto to dominate large portions of the market in the U.S., and the lack of labeling has greatly helped keep people in the dark about what’s really in their food.”
While federal agencies rely on studies conducted by the biotech companies themselves in determining the safety of GMOs, several independent scientific studies have found evidence that genetically engineered products can have negative health effects.
In 2011, Canadian researchers reported that 93 percent of pregnant women’s blood and 80 percent of their fetal cord blood samples contained a toxin found in a genetically engineered corn that produces its own pesticide (Bt corn). Scientists say more research is needed to fully investigate the impact of the toxins found in the study.
A study published in the March 2011 edition of Environmental Sciences Europe that analyzed 19 studies of mammals fed with commercialized genetically modified soybean and corn found indications that GMOs lead to liver and kidney problems.
The study, which also analyzed short-term rat tests obtained by court order, reported that “the 90-day-long tests are insufficient to evaluate chronic toxicity, and the signs highlighted in the kidneys and livers could be the onset of chronic diseases. However, no minimal length for the tests is yet obligatory for any of the GMOs cultivated on a large scale, and this is socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection.”
Up to 80 percent of conventional processed food in the U.S. contains GMOs. In addition, 80 percent of all GMOs are engineered to resist herbicides, and as a result, the use of toxic herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup have increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced in the 1990s.
Herbicides like Roundup, which are used on genetically modified crops, are believed to be linked to a rise in birth defects among children living in production areas such as in Argentina, where farmers are suing Monsanto, Philip Morris and Carolina Leaf Tobacco over increased rates of cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and other defects where the herbicides are used.
Scientists and watch groups alike agree there is not enough evidence available to understand the true effects, both short and long-term, of GMOs on consumers. The Vermont Right to Know GMOs project, a collaboration of NOFA Vermont, Rural Vermont, and Vermont Public Interest Research Group, believes that the lack of information available to consumers about GMOs makes labeling products even more important.
“Without labeling not only is the opportunity for consumers to avoid GE foods denied, but the ability of medical professionals and public health agencies to identify, track and address any unanticipated GE-related health effects is greatly limited,” the group said.
Setbacks to GMO labeling policies
Although Vermont’s GMO labeling bill has passed the House Agriculture Committee, there are still several hurdles standing in the way of its passage. Governor Peter Shumlin, although claiming support for GMO labeling, believes passing the bill would be a mistake.
“You know me – I’ve got a lot of courage. I believe that consumers a have a right to know what they’re eating,” Shumlin said. “I also know this is almost identical to the case that we lost in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was a better court then than we have now on these issues.”
Shumlin was referring to an almost identical bill passed in the mid-1990s requiring processors to label whether their milk had been produced by cows treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST. Shumlin said in a press conference that the state lost a significant amount of money by fighting for the rBST labeling bill, which was overturned in 1994 by the Supreme Court in favor of Monsanto.
Monsanto has used lawsuits for over 20 years to promote the production and sale of GMOs, intimidate farmers into buying GM seeds and hormones, and to maintain control of the industry. Monsanto’s wealth has allowed the company to buy out competition and force settlements in legal disputes. Additionally, Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, who is responsible for ensuring clear and accurate labeling of foods, has strong ties to Monsanto.
Despite legal and political obstacles, supporters of the bill are not giving up hope. The Organics Consumer Association has even started a legal defence fund for Vermont to use if a lawsuit ensues.