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Vermont is the first U.S. state to pass a bill requiring the labeling of GMO or genetically modified organisms. Only leaving out animal derived products, the bill includes all products sold in grocery stores (as well as ingredients) and prevents the use of the word “natural” if they contain genetically engineered materials. The bill is based on the fact that genetically modified foods “potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture, and the environment”, and it comes with a $1.5 million reserve for the lawsuit(s) expected from the food and biotech industries (officially still evaluating their response).

What’s the big deal about GMOs and why such bill?

GMO basic facts

Here is a short “GMO 101” series of 4 quick posts explaining simply: what are GMOs, why we should care about GMOS, why we should avoid GMOS and how to avoid GMOs. Three main concerns about GMOs are

  • The absence of independent scientific studies on the long-term effects of a GMO based diet over human health. GMO seed makers (Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, Dupont…) have no interest in helping with uncovering possibly alarming results so they refuse to provide / prohibit use of their proprietary seeds. From an environmental perspective, GMO crops are bound to high use of pesticides, which contributes to the pollution of the land and depletion of the soil, making it harder to cultivate it (industrial GMO crops are mono-crops, so there’s no rotations, hence no soil regeneration).
  • There’s no GMO labeling law in the U.S. Based on short term data and a “no harm proved” approach (as opposed to “no proof of no harm” in 60+ other countries in the world, who outright ban production and sale of GMOs or have major restrictions in effect), GMOs were deemed safe and got approved for human consumption. And with no on-pack labeling, most consumers don’t even know they’re eating genetically modified foods. Indeed, some GMOs like soy, corn, sugar beet and canola are sold as such, but they’re also part of most processed packaged foods in the form of “hidden” additive ingredients, making it even harder to identify them. Labeling would at least inform consumers about what’s in any given foods. A fair rule of thumb to go by could be that all non certified organic packaged foods likely contain one or more GMO ingredients.
  • There’s no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs from the experts. On one end, pro-GMOs argue they have support from many international bodies and GMO seed makers commonly refer to an agreed upon general GMO safety assessment. Just as vocal and on the other end of the spectrum, GMO skeptics say such an aligned point of view does not exist, explain why they do not find GMOs to be safe and are part of a growing list of non GMO-endorsers from the scientific global community.
 

GMO labeling is widely deemed reasonable by the average consumer now.

Via the work and passionate efforts of activist and advocate groups like GMO Inside, initiatives like Just Label It.org, individuals like Robyn O’Brien taking on unhealthy foods through her personal family story, and even some retailers changing the face of packaging labeling (Whole Foods), or increasing organic offering (WalMart), GMO awareness is growing among consumers and more and more food manufacturers get their products Non-GMO Project verified as a proactive move, deemed both consumer and business friendly. Consumers also take matters into their own hands as shown by the class action lawsuit against Naked Juice, loosely calling “All Natural” some of their juices containing GMO ingredients. The echo of all these converging voices is regularly measured in national polls, that now show a population largely in favor of GMO food labeling. Over 93%, per a 2013 national survey.

On the other side of the spectrum, (profit) risk averse GMO seed makers and some U.S. food manufacturers are not so Vermont-friendly…

No enthusiasm there since GMO seed makers sell (cheaper than both organic and conventional, which is the #1 reason for use) GMO ingredients to manufacturers and both thrive on that low cost product and/or ingredient, source of high margins. They’re also claiming loudly that GMOs are perfectly safe for human health, and authorized for sale for that very reason. At stake for them? More GMO awareness means potential lost sales if some intrigued, newly aware consumers proactively look into GMOs and decide on a “precautionary principle” type of approach by switching to GMO-free options. Hard to predict the size of the risk, but their analysts are for sure crunching numbers daily on this… Also typically brought up, the added cost of packaging scarecrow, which they threaten to pass on to consumers. When you know that marketers are modifying packaging at least once a year, they have more than enough time to plan for this addition before July 1st, 2016! The one, real risk of one state success with such bill is to create a domino effect and more states start enforcing mandatory labeling too. At that point, manufacturers’ entire business model (and supply chain) might need to be redone. As for GMO seed makers, no more GMO demand would mean no more business.

The battle of the pro GMO labeling team vs the against GMO labeling team…

On the pro GMO labeling side- While a lawsuit is rightfully expected next in Vermont, more state level initiatives are being conducted to pass similar legislation, and that first enforceable, self sufficient example set by Vermont is truly unique and game-changing. Indeed, Maine and Connecticut already passed similar legislations but only symbolic ones since they need several neighboring states to pass them too before they become effective. To date, 26 states have been working on labeling bills including a dozen states (New York is one) who’ve reached approval on a GMO bill in at least one legislative committee, and others with pending legislation in the works. It seems as if the march is on, and states where prior attempts failed (like California’s Prop37 and Washington’s I-522 where the pro GMO labeling campaigns were massively outspent by the anti labeling lobby) all said they’d get at it again…

Against GMO labeling side- At the national level, the GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association) urged policymakers to only support labeling measures if the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) finds any proven health or safety risks, well aware that no such long term study exist, is ongoing, or will be scheduled anytime soon! But more concretely, the anti labeling front is also toughening its use of lobbying and political powers to keep the advantage on the side of GMOs, both nationally and globally. Common private interests have been working together to prepare the uber secretive TTP or Trans-Pacific Partnership, and TTIP or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The little information transpiring from these 2 trade agreements is deeply alarming with measures such as GMO labeling prohibition, right for corporations to sue both government and states if laws are deemed profit unfriendly, and a specific role for the TTIP, to focus on the European Union’s pretty strong anti-GMO laws. With even China now refusing to purchase U.S. GMO crops, new outlets are needed to make use of all the national acres used to grow GMOs…

All eyes are watching Vermont and the first next step: the signature of its long time GMO labeling supporter, Governor Peter Shumlin.
At the end of the day, labeling GMOs is a simple, basic request, in line with our right to know what’s in the food we may, or not, consider purchasing. So why all this pushback from big companies, really? Could it be that what is in GMOs is not as safe for human health as loudly conveyed by their makers? Could they know things we would want to know before we give them our dollars?

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