Fraud, Misinformation, and the GMO Labeling Law in Vermont

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In May of this year, Vermont passed a GMO labeling bill that flooded the national news media. It was such a huge event since similar legislation had been defeated in places like Washington and California leading up to it. Those opposing the genetic modification of seeds, who have found quite a bit of support in Vermont, began to celebrate, while hinting at the backlash they knew would come. Of course, they pointed at Monsanto, their usual target of ire, regardless of whether it’s deserved.

The bill, H. 112, titled AN ACT RELATING TO THE LABELING OF FOOD PRODUCED WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING, has several glaring problems that should be looked at from the start. Let’s take a look at the “Findings” section, which sets the premise of the bill.

U.S. federal law does not provide for the necessary and satisfactory regulation of the safety and labeling of food that contains genetically engineered ingredients, as evidenced by the following:

This part alone is demonstrably false, even before they list their reasons for coming to this conclusion. The process itself takes years just to get a new GMO to be approved by the FDA.

U.S. federal labeling and food and drug laws do not require manufacturers of food produced with genetic engineering to label such food as genetically engineered. As indicated by the testimony of Dr. Robert Merker, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Supervisory Consumer Safety Officer, theFDA has statutory authority to require labeling of food products, but does not consider genetically engineered foods to be materially different from their traditional counterparts to justify such labeling.

Alright, this is a very common argument used against GMOs, and it’s “not even wrong,” that is, it’s not based enough in reality to be wrong.

Currently, all seeds leaving the biotech firms to the farmers are clearly labeled. The FDA requires labeling on food only if the nutritional value of the food is changed. Since GMO is a process, and not an ingredient, no change in nutrition typically occurs. With the exception of Golden Rice and the new banana, most are engineered with traits to aid farmers in the growing process. They have no effect on the final product.

So, safety, again, is not at issue here.

No formal FDA policy on the labeling of genetically engineered foods has been adopted. Currently, the FDA only provides nonbinding guidance on the labeling of genetically engineered foods, including a 1992 draft guidance regarding the need for the FDA to regulate labeling of food produced from genetic engineering and a 2001 draft guidance for industry regarding voluntary labeling of food produced from genetic engineering.

The FDA regulates genetically engineered foods in the same way it regulates foods developed by traditional plant breeding. Under its regulatory framework, the FDA does not independently test the safety of genetically engineered foods. Instead, manufacturers may submit safety research and studies, the majority of which the manufacturers finance or conduct. The FDA reviews the manufacturers’ research and reports through a voluntary safety consultation, and issues a letter to the manufacturer acknowledging the manufacturer’s conclusion regarding the safety of the genetically engineered food product being tested.

The FDA does not use meta-studies or other forms of statistical analysis to verify that the studies it reviews are not biased by financial or professional conflicts of interest.

The FDA is not responsible for any safety testing. They rely on the science that has been done.  Currently, there are a substantial number of independent safety studies that have been done.

That said, this still represents a distinct lack of understand of how science works. Science self corrects for bias. When a study is done and submitted to a journal, it gets peer reviewed. This is an often brutal process, where any holes can and will be poked in your paper.

Even if a bad study somehow makes it through that and gets published, the scientific community continues to scrutinize the study, and other labs attempt to replicate it.

Whenever you look at making a scientific claim, you have to rely on a body of evidence, rather than a single study, for this very reason. In the end, the funding source makes no difference, because all of these safeguards are built into the process.

There is a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding the safety of genetically engineered foods, as indicated by the fact that there are peer-reviewed studies published in international scientific literature showing negative, neutral, and positive health results.

There have been no long-term or epidemiologic studies in the United States that examine the safety of human consumption of genetically engineered foods.

The “long-term studies” assertion has been floating around for a long time. The studies done on genetically modified technologies are equivalent to those that have been done on other types of crops and have shown that they are just as safe as other types of agricultural goods.

As far as consensus, there are over 2000 studies thus far on GMOs. A massive review in 2013 showed the consensus clearly with the following: “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

Independent scientists are limited from conducting safety and risk-assessment research of genetically engineered materials used in food products due to industry restrictions on the use for research of those genetically engineered materials used in food products.

                This is another very common assertion. There IS a seed agreement that farmers sign when they purchase seeds. The question is, when determining the safety of a food product, what lab is going to grow it from scratch? They can freely purchase the food products to conduct the studies, and they do, as is evidence on the previously linked body of scientific work on the subject.

Genetically engineered foods are increasingly available for human consumption, as evidenced by the fact that: it is estimated that up to 80 percent of the processed foods sold in the United States are at least partially produced from genetic engineering; and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2012, genetically engineered soybeans accounted for 93 percent of U.S. soybean acreage, and genetically engineered corn accounted for 88 percent of U.S. corn acreage.

That’s pretty accurate, as far as it goes, and only further reinforced the concept that we’ve been using GMO originated foods in abundance with no ill effects.

Genetically engineered foods pose potential risks to health, safety, agriculture, and the environment, as evidenced by the following:

Independent studies in laboratory animals indicate that the ingestion of genetically engineered foods may lead to health problems such as gastrointestinal damage, liver and kidney damage, reproductive problems, immune system interference, and allergic responses.

They do no such thing. No study that has not been retracted (Example: Seralini) has shown any such thing.

The genetic engineering of plants and animals may cause unintended consequences. The use of genetic engineering to manipulate genes by inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. Mixing plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes through genetic engineering in combinations that cannot occur in nature may produce results that lead to adverse health or environmental consequences.

First, no animal genes are currently being used in the genetic modification of seeds.

Secondly, they’re making an interesting assertion here. Let me explain the difference between choosing a trait through genetic modification versus choosing it through other methods, such as selective breeding or radiation.

Other methods equate to cutting butter with a club. It’s messy, and there is a LOT of room for error, because you can’t precisely control what you’re selecting for. This was evidenced in the case of the poison potato, long before GMO.

Using genetic modification is like cutting butter with a surgical scalpel. It’s extremely precise, and there is very little room where error can occur in what you’re selecting for. This makes it exponentially more precise than traditional methods.

The use of genetically engineered crops is increasing in commodity agricultural production practices. Genetically engineered crops promote large-scale monoculture production, which contributes to genetic homogeneity, loss of biodiversity, and increased vulnerability of crops to pests, diseases, and variable climate conditions.

Genetically engineered crops that include pesticides may adversely affect populations of bees, butterflies, and other nontarget insects.

All crops use pesticides, even certified organic. Here’s a chart showing organic approved pesticides, and their toxicity to bees.

Organic Pesticides

As for butterflies, there hasn’t been an issue of toxicity towards them. The issue is the destruction of milkweed, which again, has nothing to do with GMO. It has to do with agriculture in general not wanting milkweed in their fields.

Cross-pollination of or cross-contamination by genetically engineered crops may contaminate organic crops and prevent organic farmers and organic food producers from qualifying for organic certification under federal law.

Cross-pollination from genetically engineered crops may have an adverse effect on native flora and fauna. The transfer of unnatural deoxyribonucleic acid to wild relatives can lead to displacement of those native plants, and in turn, displacement of the native fauna dependent on those wild varieties.

Cross pollination can happen, yes. That said, there are simple ways to solve the problem for organic farmers, as evidenced in a Plos One paper in 2013.

Even then, however, this has nothing to do with labeling GMO foods. This is the organic industry complaining about a challenge they “might” encounter while trying to the marketing advantage that is a certified organic label. It shouldn’t be part of this bill, since it’s not relevant to it.

For multiple health, personal, cultural, religious, environmental, and economic reasons, the State of Vermont finds that food produced from genetic engineering should be labeled as such, as evidenced by the following:

Public opinion polls conducted by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont indicate that a large majority of Vermonters want foods produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such.

Public opinion shouldn’t dictate scientific policy. Public opinion has zero bearing on scientific conclusions. Legislating science based on public opinion is poor policy.

Because genetic engineering, as regulated by this act, involves the direct injection of genes into cells, the fusion of cells, or the hybridization of genes that does not occur in nature, labeling foods produced with genetic engineering as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or other similar descriptors is inherently misleading, poses a risk of confusing or deceiving consumers, and conflicts with the general perception that “natural” foods are not genetically engineered.

GMO based foods are as “natural” as any other food we eat. We’ve been modifying our crops from how they would naturally occur since the invention of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago. Labeling anything we eat as “natural” is meaningless, because all of it “natural.”

Persons with certain religious beliefs object to producing foods using genetic engineering because of objections to tampering with the genetic makeup of life forms and the rapid introduction and proliferation of genetically engineered organisms and, therefore, need food to be labeled as genetically engineered in order to conform to religious beliefs and comply with dietary restrictions.

There is no religious doctrine in any established religion that dictates genetic modification. Even if there were, it would then require that its adherents eat none of the food of the modern world, as it has all been genetically altered from its original form.

Requiring that foods produced through genetic engineering be labeled as such will create additional market opportunities for those producers who are not certified as organic and whose products are not produced from genetic engineering. Such additional market opportunities will also contribute to vibrant and diversified agricultural communities.

This is key, right here. This states explicitly that they are legislating GMOs to aid competing parts of the industry in gaining a higher market share.

Labeling gives consumers information they can use to make informed decisions about what products they would prefer to purchase.

It gives them no information that is relevant to the health, safety, or content of a food. It only tells them that a specific process was used prior to the food being grown.

Because both the FDA and the U.S. Congress do not require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, the State should require food produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such in order to serve the interests of the State, notwithstanding limited exceptions, to prevent inadvertent consumer deception, prevent potential risks to human health, promote food safety, protect cultural and religious practices, protect the environment, and promote economic development.

This final statement just reiterates the points addressed above.

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So, we’ve established here that the premise of the bill is entirely faulty. There isn’t anything in it that is relevant to enforcing labeling. Given this fact, it’s no wonder that a lawsuit HAS in fact been filed against the state of Vermont over the constitutionality of this piece of legislation. Only…it wasn’t filed by Monsanto.

Let’s look, first, at the plaintiffs.

GMA – Grocery Manufacturers Association

The GMA is an organization representing the interests of the food and beverage companies of America. They have initiatives such as The Healthy Schools Partnership and Keeping the Industry Green.

Of course, since members of theirs aided in defeating the labeling initiative in Washington, they’ve already been demonized.

Mercola names then the “Most Evil Corporation on the Planet,” which, you know, isn’t hyperbole or anything. Occupy Monsanto asks you to boycott their entire membership list, which does include Monstano, as one of hundreds of companies.

 

NAM – National Association of Manufacturers

NAM is an organization that represents small and large manufacturers in America. They include a huge membership all over the country, in many industries. They’re a pretty active organization on the national stage, and are transparent to the point of publicly stating their positions on a myriad of issues.

 

IDFA – International Dairy Foods Association

The IDFA is comprised of the Milk Industry Foundation, National Cheese Institute, and the International Ice cream Association. They’re members are entirely dairy producing companies.

 

SFA – Snack Food Association

The SFA resents about 400 companies worldwide that are snack manufacturers and suppliers. They’re active in education and research globally, and reputable.

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So, looking at these four plaintiffs, aside from membership in one (amidst hundreds of other companies), Monsanto isn’t even an aspect. They are certainly not suing Vermont, as the headlines are continuously claiming.

This is pretty telling, actually, because a non-profit by the name of Sum of Us is currently raising money to fight against Monsanto. They’ve gotten over 21,000 donors so far, to help them fight the evil Monsanto.

Now, there are a couple of interesting things to this.

First, Monsanto is one of thousands of companies represented by the four plaintiff organizations, yet they are using Monsanto as the focus of their fundraising, but naming them as the company leading the charge. They’re essentially lying to their donors to raise money, which constitutes willful fraud.

Also, they are a non-profit actively raising money to aid in the legislative process. While a non-profit is allowed to lobby, they aren’t permitted to financially influence the legislative process.

OK, so let’s look at the lawsuit itself.

They’ve filed it based on the following.

Vermont passed Act 120 to require food manufacturers to change the way they label and advertise foods containing ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops. Plaintiffs represent manufacturers who are subject to the Act, who fundamentally disagree with the message it forces them to convey, and who must now take immediate steps to change their labeling and advertising to comply with the Act’s enforcement deadline. Plaintiffs bring this suit to declare invalid and enjoin Act 120 on the ground that it violates the United States Constitution.

That’s pretty pointed. Do they have justification for it?

                The operative provisions of Act 120 take effect July 1, 2016. That is a difficult, if not impossible, deadline for Plaintiffs’ members to meet. They must revise hundreds of thousands of product packages, from the small to the super-sized. Then, they must establish Vermont-only distribution channels to ensure that the speech Vermont is forcing them to say, or not say, is conveyed in that State. To comply by the deadline, some companies may have no choice but to revise labels for all of their products, no matter where they might be sold in the United States.

That’s pretty important. They’re requiring actions from out of state companies that may be forced to affect how those companies operate in other states.

The proscriptions in Act 120 are beyond Vermont’s power to enact. The State is compelling manufacturers to convey messages they do not want to convey, and prohibiting manufacturers from describing their products in terms of their choosing, without anything close to a sufficient justification. The State is forcing the costs of this experiment on out-of-state companies and citizens to which it is not politically accountable, and it is undermining and impeding the federal government’s interest in uniform, nationwide standards for food labeling prescribed by duly authorize expert federal agencies.

                In each of the above respects, the Act exceeds Vermont’s authority under the United States Constitution. The Act should be invalidated and enjoined in its entirety.

                That’s the key to it right there. You have the state government legislating companies and people in other states, affecting interstate commerce, and overriding the federal government’s authority. It’s feasible that this could even ripple internationally, with our exported goods from these companies as well. By all appearances, Vermont has well overstepped its authority.

As James Cooper points out aptly in his article on the subject, “since this is much the same law as was overturned in International Dairy Foods v Amestoy case, it is likely to be overturned as well.”

So, we’ll keep watch on this legislation and subsequent lawsuit, and for those of us that follow the science, we’ll hope that more rational minds will prevail, and the law will be summarily overturned.

Rows of a Carrot Field

References

“A Built-In Strategy to Mitigate Transgene Spreading from Genetically Modified Corn.” PLOS One. 6 Dec. 2013. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.137&gt;.

“PDF: Lawsuit vs. Vermont GMO law.” Scribd. 12 Jun. 2014. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/229432405/PDF-Lawsuit-vs&gt;.

Vermont State House. State. 2013. 18 Jun. 2014<http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2014/bills/House/H-112.pdf&gt;.

Chaussee, Jennifer . “California GMO Labeling Push Fails A Second Time After Lawmakers Reject Bill.” Huff Post Food for Thought. 28 May. 2014.<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/29/californi&gt;.

Cooper, James . “Vermont sued for its GMO labeling law.” Examiner. 16 Jun. 2014. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.examiner.com/article/vermont-sued-for-i&gt;.

Entine, Jon . “After GMO Labeling Bill Defeat In Washington, Will Anti-GMO ‘Witch Hunts’ Escalate In Next Battlegro.” Forbes. 6 Nov. 2013. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2013/11/07/a&gt;.

Ford, Dana . “Vermont governor signs GMO food labeling into law.” CNN Health. 8 May. 2014. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/08/health/vermont-gmo-l&gt;.

Novella, Steven . “The Seralini GMO Study – Retraction and Response to Critics.” Science-Based Medicine. 4 Dec. 2013. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-seralini-g&gt;.

Pomeroy, Ross . “Massive Review Reveals Consensus on GMO Safety.” Real Clear Science. 1 Oct. 2013. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2013/10/massi&gt;.

Rebgetz, Louisa . “Genetically modified Queensland bananas to join fight against catastrophic results of vitamin A defi.” ABC News. 15 Jun. 2014. 17 Jun. 2014. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-14/genetic-bana&gt;.

Stockstill, Ellen . “Agricultural Biotechnology.” Curiosity from Discovery. 18 Jun. 2014. <http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/GM-crops-h&gt;.

Wendel, JoAnna . “With 2000+ global studies affirming safety, GM foods among most analyzed subjects in science.” Genetic Literacy Project. 8 Oct. 2013. 17 Jun. 2014. <http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/w&gt;.

 

Contributor: Robert Sacerich

Robert is a Bioethics and Ethical Philosophy student at Cleveland State University, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes. He writes about science, technology, politics, human rights, feminism, religion, and any other topic that catches his eye.

See his full bio!

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8 thoughts on “Fraud, Misinformation, and the GMO Labeling Law in Vermont

  1. People have a right to know how their food was made, as well as what is in it. It doesn’t matter if you think everyone is stupid (or if everyone really is). All of your arguments don’t really matter. Just label it. Be done with it and move on.

    • Basically, you want to force costs on one part of an industry, which will aid another part of the industry (organic, at over $40 billion a year). You want to legislation to help major corporate interests sell more organic. That’s really what it comes down to.

      Also, there is already voluntary organic and non-GMO labeling. There are also apps and websites designed by the organic crowd to tell you where you can find things that weren’t created using transgenics. So, you’d be gaining zero new information with a GMO label.

      Also, consider that other methods such as selective breeding and mutagenesis can often actually have harmful outcomes, like when the poisonous potatoes created via selective breeding hit the market.

      Should every process be labeled?

      Do people who have an irrational fear of, say, foreign immigrants also get a label if foreign immigrants were employed in the production of the food? What about a label explaining what type of gloves were used during harvest? What type of tractor?

      How about the chemical compounds of the local water table used for watering?

      While we’re at it, you should ask for a label telling you what type of glue is used on the GMO label. That could also be scary to the uninformed.

  2. “Basically, you want to force costs on one part of an industry, which will aid another part of the industry”

    Isn’t this what happened to the food that people were used to (and accepted) to begin with? Doesn’t it cost extra money to get an organic label? We had food that was produced using methods people were o.k. with. Then we started making food in a new way that was scary to the non-scientific public. Then we did not prove to them it was the same difference. We just called them stupid, and said, “Public opinion shouldn’t dictate scientific policy. Public opinion has zero bearing on scientific conclusions. Legislating science based on public opinion is poor policy.”

    Well unfortunately, non-scientists are needed to fund scientific research, and they are also needed to purchase the results of that research. So they have to be included in the process, and if they do not want something new, you can’t force it on them, and make them pay more money for the assurance they used to have for free (or make them take extra trouble to read lists off of apps). And this is food we are talking about, something everyone needs, so people might get passionate and irrational about it. It does not cost extra money to write on a label, “made with GE ingredients,” or whatever it has to be. And people will not stop buying the labeled food anyway. They will pop it right into their carts as usual. Then they will get used to it and see that it is safe.

    I will not address the rest of your comments about immigrants or whatever, because that is not really the point here.

    • OK, let’s see what we have here.

      First off, the majority of people have no idea what the previous methods of trait selection even are, so that’s a bit of a silly argument.

      Second, the public isn’t funding research into genetic modification. That research is mostly corporation funded, because it’s a massive cost and a long length of time to develop a new trait.

      Third, the labels for non-GMO cost money, yes. They are also VOLUNTARY for those who want to market to the minority of consumers who choose food based on irrational fear. Organic costs more than non-GMO, but it brings in a huge increase in product price.

      Thanks to those voluntary labels, telling someone that along the way, one or more ingredient might have had the process of transgenic modification (as opposed to mutagenesis or selective breeding or one of the many other methods of trait selection) slapped on the side of a package gives them zero new information, zero information about health or safety, and would be a logistical nightmare to do with much of the food manufacturing industry.

      As stated, it would be no different in effect and logistics, than labeling based on the nationality of the farm worker or the brand of the harvester. It’s a nonsensical request that a minority of consumers, mostly people who have the luxury to be able to afford to be afraid of their food, are asking both farmers and consumers to pay for because of their irrational fear.

      • I think I understand what you’re saying, and I think I even agree! Thanks for spelling it out, I appreciate it. But I get the sense that most people aren’t going to be able to put in the time and mental energy to understand these nuances, or even just the main ideas. It will take time.

        I think a lot of the GMO hate is mixed up with the fact that most people don’t want to eat herbicides/pesticides.

        I think there is a majority of people who would agree that it should be easy to pick up a package of food, and immediately be able to see what, exactly, they are eating. If they buy a box of raisins that contains dried grapes that were sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, anti-caking agents, preservatives, desiccants, and soaked in “natural flavors” and sealed up in a bag of gas or what have you, it should not only say “Raisins” on the box, even if those other ingredients are less than 1%. They are sick and tired of being uninformed and misled.

        And you’re exactly right, people do not know the differences between methods of trait selection (nor do they care), but if you call an argument silly just because someone is ignorant, I don’t think they will suddenly start seeing it your way. All they know is they thought people used to eat some naturally evolved plants, and could understand plant sex helped along by man (kind of like breeding dogs), but over the years, it seems like every time you open the paper you learn that some carcinogen is on your food, and no one is required to disclose it. Finally learning that scientists are making their food in a lab and they don’t even know for sure if it is safe is kind of the last straw. They are sick of trying to figure out what is safe and what is not. They don’t trust the government to decide if it is safe, because the government has already allowed unlabeled chemicals in our food. GMO becomes an “unregulated, unknown ingredient” and not a “safe process.”

        GE needs a good PR firm, along with an unbiased education department. And people have the right to know what is in their food, even if the ingredients are safe.

      • I agree on the PR. There are plenty of independent education groups like BioFortied, Skepti-Forum and the Genetic Literacy Project.

        I think, however, your last sentence is the crux of the problem. GMO is a process, not an ingredient. Again, if you insist on labeling based on a process, you then open the door to labeling every process, which in turn would cause all your food to come with a manual. And, again, it’s a minority of privileged, uneducated people forcing costs on others due to their irrational fear.

  3. Yes, I see you are right. And also about the privileged (rich) people with time on their hands. They think they are educating themselves, but their sources are crap. Even when they think they know the counterarguments, they really read the counterargument on the anti-GMO site, so it’s not the same as really listening to the other side. It’s become a religion. They have time on their hands to spread the word, and the poor people that catch wind of it really only get to sit there and unnecessarily feel stressed about it.

    • Yep, that’s right on the money. In the end, though, I think education becomes key. The majority of the population doesn’t know what a GMO is to be able to make an informed decision.

      You’ll notice, however, in most states, when leading polls (using questions such as “Should GMOs be labeled?) showed a majority desire for labeling, once legislation was drafted, and the focus of the agricultural and scientific community became educating the voters on the technology, the legislation is typically voted down.

      Vermont is a bit different, because their legislators have jumped on the “anti” bandwagon as well. The bigger issue here, though, is that the legislation that passed is not only full of misinformation, but it’s very stringent to the point that it would force Vermont law onto commerce in other states, which is the point that the current lawsuit rests on.

      My hope is that through this whole process, education continues to happen, so the electorate understands what’s going on here.

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