Anti-GMO movement builds
This week the Connecticut legislature became the first in the Union to pass a law requiring food with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients to be labeled. Four other states must pass a compatible law before it kicks in, but similar legislation is underway elsewhere. Some 340,000 voters have already signed petitions that could put GMO labeling on the ballot in Washington State this fall. And in Vermont, that state's House of Representatives has passed a GMO labeling bill 99 to 42.
"I can tell you with absolute certainty, that the people of Vermont want to know what's in their food," said the state's Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who in May introduced an amendment to the Senate's 2013 farm bill that would have protected states like Connecticut and Vermont from lawsuits challenging GMO labeling. "All over this country people are concerned about the quality of the food they are ingesting and giving to their kids."
Sanders' amendment was soundly defeated, by a vote of 71 to 27. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow argued against it, saying that such labeling isn't based on science.
"I believe we must rely on the FDA science-based recommendations," Stabenow said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration has determined there's no material difference between GMO and non-GMO food ingredients.
Sanders views it differently.
"This is a pretty simple issue, and the issue is do the American people have a right to know what's in the food they are eating?" he said.
When it comes to how GMO labeling might affect agriculture, it may not be so simple.
Neither the Connecticut law nor a similar ballot initiative in California that was defeated last year would directly affect farmers who plant Roundup Ready soybeans or corn with stacked genetic traits. In fact, both the Connecticut law and the California proposal wouldn't apply to meat from animals that aren't genetically modified, no matter what kind of feed the livestock ate.
Ultimately, "it depends on how many consumers care," said Dermot Hayes, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University who co-authored an academic study in 2005 on "Genetically Modified Crops: Their Market and Welfare Impact."
So far, in a national market without GMO labeling, U.S. consumers who buy non-GMO foods must pay the cost of segregating the non-GMO crops that go into them, Hayes pointed out. Even with labeling, that might not change much, unless the percentage of consumers who are concerned about GMOs goes above 50%. Then, there might be more pressure to segregate the genetically modified crops. That's the case now in the European Union, where non-GMO crops move through the bulk handling system, Hayes told Agriculture.com.
Hayes agrees with a group of economists in California that a key issue is what tolerance is allowed for traces of GMO material in nonGMO foods. The Connecticut law appears to set that tolerance at nine-tenths of one percent, the same level as in the EU. The California initiative, Proposition 37, would have started with a 0.5% tolerance and gone to zero-tolerance.