Most of my colleagues in the legislature have endorsed a pending bill that would require labeling of foods produced from genetically modified farm crops. A group of legislators held a public forum on GMO labeling in Watertown last night.
I’ve been a skeptic of the bill. The choice we are being asked to make as legislators is whether to create a new food labeling system in Massachusetts that would apply to products most of which are made elsewhere in the United States. The threshold question we have to ask is: Can we successfully force that on the rest of the country?
The answer to that threshold question is probably no. It is the role of our national government to regulate products in interstate commerce. That idea is enshrined in our constitution and the legality of Vermont’s GM labeling law is being challenged in the courts. It is also a common sense idea — we have a national economy and the practical ability of states to make rules controlling production activities in other states is limited.
In the case of food labeling, we’ve had federal leadership for over 100 years. Wherever you go in the United States, you will find products bearing the familiar nutrition facts labels and ingredient lists. If you prefer to buy organic, you can have confidence that foods labelled “organic” meet the same federal standards everywhere you go.
Federal leadership is especially necessary in GM food labeling. Over the past couple of decades, the production cost advantages of GM crops have led to the near universal use (in the United States) of GM seeds in the commercial farming of certain major staples — corn, soy, canola and sugar beets (not wheat or peanuts). These crops are heavily used in processed foods. So, in order to enforce a requirement that GM content be disclosed, we would have to be able to inspect foods at multiple stages of production in other states. Without the power to inspect, we could expect non-compliance at every stage.
Also, consumers will end up confused if different states adopt different labeling rules. One of the good points made in the forum was that a state could adopt many different rules around GMOs. Questions that states might answer differently include:
- If a GM crop product contains no DNA or protein is it still subject to labeling — for example, pressed oils contain only fats — should they be labelled?
- If animals are fed with GM food or GM drugs, is their meat and milk subject to labeling?
- If non-GM crops are processed in facilities that also process GM crops, are they subject to labeling?
- Must products prove that they have not been contaminated in the field by neighboring GM seeds in order to avoid a labeling mandate?
- Do all GM products merit labeling or just those that facilitate increased chemical use?
Attempting to mandate GM labeling from the state level will only undercut the credibility of food labeling generally.
The federal Food and Drug Administration does review new GM products, but typically does not require clinical trials of GM foods. The FDA accepts the argument of GM manufacturers that technological genetic modifications — allowing crops to tolerate the application of weed-killers or making the crops less attractive to pests — are important but minor, involving only a single protein usually. If this protein is known to be safe, the product is presumed to be safe. The chances of introducing harmful plant content are actually much greater when wild strains of plant are bred into seeds using traditional cross-breeding, because we are actually changing many more features of the plant. Yet, we do not require clinical trials after traditional cross-breading — corn is still corn.
Should we trust the federal regulatory approach? While I do not feel that the state has the practical power to enforce labeling, I understand the concerns that many people have about GM crops. As was argued in the forum, these concerns go beyond the fact of genetic modification, to other issues — use of chemicals, loss of biodiversity, and corporate agriculture — associated with, but not necessarily caused by GM crops.
People seeking to avoid GM products do have options. First, products that are USDA certified as organic have minimal GM content. Second, more and more foods bear voluntary non-GMO labeling that is verified by third-party certification organizations. This is the model that people who seek to buy kosher foods use and it has worked well for decades. Finally, and there are many other good reasons to do this, people can avoid eating processed foods. In the US market, most fresh foods are non-GMO.
I look forward to continuing to listen and learn on this issue and as always your welcome feedback.
Presentation Materials for the October 20 Forum:
- James Tillotson Presentation
- Note: Sheldon Krimsky presented without slides.
- Elizabeth Vierling Presentation
- Sean Cash Presentation
- Watertown Tab Coverage of the forum.
- White House review of biotechnology regulation.
- MA Right to Know GMOs — lead anti-GMO advocates in MA
- Use of GM products — corn and soy — in animal feed
- Panelist Sheldon Krimsky — GMO Deception
- Panelist Elizabeth Vierling — Complexity of GMO Labelling
- Editorial – The Boston Globe
- Editorial — Boston Herald
- Pew Research on scientist vs public opinion on GMOs