Summer Study Tour students became law scholars briefly this week. Carrie Scrufari, fellow with Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, led the group in a discussion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as they relate to Act 120, Vermont’s new GMO-labeling law. She acknowledged the topic to be complex and that there are no final answers, whether one opposes or advocates for the statute.
Even referring to GMOs does not quite describe the plant and animal foods this law addresses. Genetic modification takes place also when organisms are conventionally cross-bred. The more accurate term is Genetically Engineered (GE), but since it is in the public discourse as GMO that is the wording used when labeling is supported or denied.
Carrie began with a review of the three branches of government and the checks and balances on power that are spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. She related further how the legislative branch, Congress, delegates authority to federal agencies, including those responsible for regulating GMOs: Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each approaches this issue from a different perspective, based upon the Acts that created them.
To step back from that for a moment, it is important to interject that two competing concepts frame the debate. Those who advocate for labeling adopt the Precautionary Principle. It is summarized in this way: When evidence points to the potential of an activity to cause significant, widespread or irreparable harm to public health or environment, options for avoiding that harm should be examined and pursued, even though the harm is not fully understood or proven.
Sixty four countries in the world have acted based on this principle and now require labeling of GMOs, including European Union, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand. A number in the European Union especially have outright banned them.
The second and opposing concept is Substantial Equivalence, that is, that GMOS are substantially the same as foods that have been created through conventional selection of traits and cross-breeding. The United States government has taken this approach to regulation of GMOs, the same position taken by “Big Food” and “Big Pharma.”
By that token, the FDA has classified all GMOs as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), meaning they do not require pre-market review. The USDA can require a pre-market review when the GMO may pose a plant risk to the environment or to interstate commerce, but generally it has not – even when studies have shown that herbicide use with GMOs has produced “superweeds.” The EPA also has generally been industry-friendly, even to the point of de-regulating a GE crop even when it has had a questionable pre-market review.
In general, there has been little to no third-party testing of GMOs. The industry giants such as Cargill, Monsanto, and Dupont have controlled the data and manipulated public opinion as well as lobbied government extensively. That means that Act 120, though it withstood a court challenge from the Grocery Manufacturers Association in April, 2015, has a long hard road ahead of it. Lawsuits, however, were anticipated by the State House in Vermont. They built into the wording of the law the creation of a “Food Fight Fund.” This provision allows citizens of Vermont and elsewhere to kick in money to defend any future attempts to repeal the law.
When polled, year after year, an overwhelming majority of Americans report that they want labeling of GMOs. Maine and Connecticut are two states that have passed such laws as well, but with “trigger clauses,” meaning the statutes will go in effect when demand reaches critical mass, that is, when 4-5 more states support it. The debate continues nationwide.