Vermont legislators are currently trying to pass a bill that would allow Vermonters to know if their food contains any GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), and the Monsanto corporation would like to thank them for their efforts on behalf of consumers with a law suit. Representative Kate Webb proposed The Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (H. 722). It requires that any foods sold by retail establishments in the state be labeled if they contain GMOs, and would ban foods containing GMOs from being labeled “All Natural.” It not only sounds like a sensible idea, but it’s an incredibly popular one too. A national poll conducted by Reuters and National Public Radio in 2010 found that 93% percent of Americans want the GMOs in their food labeled. Think about that, 93%. It’d be tough to get that kind of support for a cold beer on a hot day, let alone something as hum drum as food labeling, but that’s the kind of support this type of a law consistently gets.
Monsanto responded by immediately threatening to sue Vermont if the law passed. This isn’t a hollow threat. Monsanto, best known for the development of the herbicide Roundup, is a Fortune 500 company, and the largest seed company in the world, with $1.83 billion in sales last year. GMOs are responsible for a large share of those sales. The company is the undisputed king of genetically modified crops, producing 90% of all the GM seeds used worldwide, and it has a history of suing anyone who threatens its virtual monopoly. When Vermont passed a law back in the 1990s requiring milk containing bovine growth hormone be labeled, Monsanto sued the state. The corporation claimed that the law violated the company’s right to freedom of speech by not allowing it to remain silent about whether or not the milk contained the artificial hormone. The courts ruled in favor of Monsanto.
Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about Frankenbeans or killer tomatoes. You could argue that people have been modifying organisms ever since we domesticated the first plants and animals roughly 5000-10,000 years ago, but there are many worried that taking a gene from one living thing and splicing it into the DNA of another to create what’s called a transgenic organism is an entirely different thing. They have some serious concerns that haven’t been fully addressed.
The term GMO refers to any living thing that’s had its genome, the make-up of its DNA, modified using genetic engineering techniques. There are a number of reasons to do this. Plants might be modified to make them more resistant to droughts, insects or disease. Animals might be modified to increase their growth rate or the amount or type of milk they produce. The term genetically modified organisms was first applied to engineered bacteria back in the early 1970s. A gene from a salmonella bacterium was inserted into the DNA of an E. coli bacterium, and a new industry was born. One of the earliest and most beneficial uses for this technique was the insertion of a human gene for the production of insulin into bacteria. This allowed the bacteria to produce insulin and provided a low cost source of the drug for diabetics worldwide. The first genetically modified crops offered to consumers in this country were a type of tomato named FlavrSavr © that was engineered in the early 1990s to have a longer shelf life than ordinary tomatoes. Since then, shall we say, the growth of GMO crops has been almost frightening. According to the USDA, 75% of all corn now grown in this country is genetically modified.
Studies on the safety of GMOs has been mixed. In 2009 the International Journal of Biological Sciences published a study finding that rats fed a diet of GM corn for 90 days developed deterioration of liver and kidney functioning. Italian researchers found genetically modified genes in the milk of cows fed GM feed. There were detectable levels of the genes even after the milk was pasteurized. There have been other studies showing that GMOs are safe, such as a broad literature review on GMO safety carried out by the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences. After analyzing all the available literature, the French scientist found no long term harmful effects from eating foods containing GMOs. However, many of the studies showing that GMOs are safe were funded by Monsanto or similar companies. These companies have staunchly maintained that their products are safe and “substantially equivalent” to non-genetically modified crops. Therefore, they argue, their products don’t require the same FDA approval process that genetically modified drugs do. Verifying these claims has been difficult. Many independent researchers have been unable to obtain GM seeds to run their own studies. Monsanto has used claims of proprietary secrecy to keep their seeds out of the hands of researchers, and stymied further studies. This led to charges that Monsanto is deliberately trying to withhold information from the public about whether or not GM foods are safe. The recent lawsuit threat has done little to ease those fears.
None of this, of course, answers the broader question about whether or not consumers have a right to know. GMOs may be safe, or they may not, but consumers have overwhelmingly favored being able to make an informed decision for themselves. There are many chemicals now in food which are perfectly safe, that you or I might want to know about. Salt (sodium chloride) is quite safe if not taken in excess, but food labels are required to list how much of it is in our foods. Pork is perfectly safe, again unless eaten in excess, but Jewish and Muslim consumers have an understandable right to know if it’s in the foods they eat.
That’s the point of the Vermont law, to give consumers the information they need, but thanks to the threatened law suit, the future of the law is in question. Despite the support for the bill of 5 of the 6 members of the Agriculture Committee, several legislators have called for further hearings. The goal appears to be defeating the bill by running out the clock. The Vermont legislative session ends in early May. If opponents can stall the bill long enough, the session will end and the bill will be postponed until next year. Presumably at that point, Monsanto’s lobbying and legal threats can take up where they left off. In the short term this may work, but in the long term Monsanto will not only have to fight on this front, but many others as well. Currently 20 states are considering legislation similar to Vermont’s, including an effort in California to put their own Right to Know Act up for referendum in November. On the national level, 55 Senate and House lawmakers have signed a letter to the FDA urging the agency to require all foods containing GMOs to be labeled. Ultimately, Monsanto, despite a lobbying budget of over $8 million annually, may win the battle but lose the war. If so, then consumers will be the winners.