The GMO Labeling Bill: Doing Nothing is Doing Something

[Update: March 7, 2016: The Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture has given this bill a favorable report.  There are 115 days left in the Legislative session for the bill to make it to the Governor’s desk.]

Original post: January 10, 2015.

A question for our Legislature, whose leaders reportedly are looking to get more done this year than last: to enact or not to enact the GMO labeling bill?

It would be hard to find a bill with more legislative support: 155 of our 200 lawmakers are sponsors. Think of all those happy press releases. Plus the support is bipartisan — in fact, a supermajority of the state GOP delegation is on board. The long sponsor list reflects the fact that 93 percent of Americans agree that genetically modified food ought to be labeled as such.

Opponents of labeling, including agribusiness giants like Monsanto, say over and over again that there’s no difference between genetically modified food and conventional food and imply that anybody who wants GMO labeling is a Luddite cousin of the anti-vaccination folks, the climate change deniers and the creationists. And it’s true that those who favor GMO labelling lack hard evidence that GMO’s present a unique health risk. Slate columnist and labeling opponent William Saletan has called GMO labeling an ill-advised fixation that “only pretends to inform you” with useful knowledge.

But in last year’s encyclical on our responsibility to take care of God’s creation, Pope Francis offered a broader perspective on this issue that included a distinction between GMO science and GMO business. “Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has…helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated.” The science of GMO’s may be benign, Francis wrote, but the business of GMO’s as presently conducted destroys ecosystems, reduces plant diversity, and concentrates productive land in the hands of a few wealthy oligopolies.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine made a similar point: whether or not GMO’s by themselves present health risks, they are the corollary in our agricultural system of a very copious use of herbicides. Monsanto sells “Roundup Ready” seeds that have been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides. Monsanto also sells “Roundup,” its brand of the herbicide glyphosate that can be applied as liberally as needed because the seeds are have been genetically engineered to withstand it. Weeds offer no competition and crop yields go up.

Because we now have crops that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate, we now dump 250 times as much of it on our amber waves of grain as we did 20 years ago. Maybe the crops won’t hurt you but what about the herbicides? And despite Monsanto’s insistence that glyphosate is safe, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined last year that it is a “probable human carcinogen.” Also, not at all surprisingly, resourceful weeds that are resistant to glyphosate are emerging that will require agribusiness to up its herbicide ante.

Another argument that agribusiness often makes against GMO labeling is that any regulation of this agricultural practice should happen at the federal level, so that there can be one uniform standard, and we can reduce costs to industry and eliminate confusion for consumers. Well, a loud amen on that one. Let’s ask the folks who have been calling for the reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban what they think our odds are. The only work that Congress has put into GMO regulation has been to try, at the behest of agribusiness, to keep states from regulating it themselves.

Which brings us to Vermont, where a 2014 law requiring the labeling of genetically modified food will take effect this July, unless Congress intervenes or unless the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rules otherwise. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, having been unsuccessful so far in its effort to persuade Congress to outlaw regulation by the states, has sued Vermont, contending that the labeling law burdens their First Amendment right to free speech. The Grocery Manufacturers lost in District Court and a panel of the Second Circuit has heard their appeal. Eight states, including Massachusetts, filed an amicus brief in support of Vermont’s GMO law. Two of those eight states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed GMO labeling laws, but those laws will take effect only when several other contiguous states do the same.

So here we are in Massachusetts. GMO labeling may not be the perfect proxy for what we ought to do to protect our food supply, but even GMO labeling opponents agree that the runaway use of herbicides is one big problem we would have less of without the existence of GMO seeds, and labeling advocates offer many more. We’re next door to Connecticut and almost next door to Maine, and they’re watching. If we pass the GMO labeling bill, we’re joining with our New England neighbors. If we don’t, we’re making Monsanto happy.

(Cross-posted on BlueMassGroup.)


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