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Vermont’s GMO labeling law: Win or loss for consumers?

| May 21, 2014

It took three years for organic farmer Will Allen and his friends back in Vermont to gain the food industry’s undivided attention. 

That’s the time they needed to convince the state’s elected leaders to enact the nation’s first law requiring food labels that acknowledge the presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. In doing so, they shoved their state onto the front lines of the battle between food activists and an industry that includes Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, one of the nation’s leaders in genetically engineered seeds.

It’s a fight that pits consumers’ desire to know more about the contents of their food versus the industry’s fear of backlash against companies that use genetically modified ingredients. Vermont’s law goes into effect in July 2016. But already, supporters are preparing for what most expect to be an expensive legal battle. 

“I think that’s inevitable. That’s why we were so careful,” Allen said, after noting the Vermont Law School’s help in crafting the law. Until Vermont took up the fight, no one wanted to be first, said Allen. He credits the efforts of a grass-roots coalition, along with vocal support from the public, for convincing lawmakers to take the plunge. “People want to know what’s in their food,” he said. “And they wouldn’t leave the Legislature alone about it.”


This idea of the consumers’ right to know has been a rallying cry for supporters of mandatory labeling. It pops up in bills and initiatives across the country, with activists questioning whether GMOs are truly safe. It’s a position the industry challenges.

“Right to know what? What does that mean?” asked Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group. “Some say it’s a right to confuse. A right to mislead consumers.” The problem, Batra and others say, is that a government-mandated label suggests the product is somehow inferior, if not actually dangerous. And they point out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sees no difference between GMO and non-GMO ingredients. So why label?

“It’s like a de facto warning,” Batra said.


What happens next in Vermont is going to be closely watched by activists and lawmakers across the nation. The law has drawn harsh criticism, with the Grocery Manufacturers Association calling it “critically flawed” and saying it plans to file a lawsuit to stop it. “It sets the nation on a costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will do nothing to advance the safety of consumers,” the group said in a statement.

The matter could be settled on the national level, with U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R.-Kan., introducing legislation that would, among other things, prohibit states from following Vermont’s lead. His Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 would give the Food and Drug Administration sole authority over labels. “It prevents a mishmash of labeling standards and allows farmers to continue to produce higher yields of healthy crops in smaller spaces with less water and fewer pesticides,” Pompeo said in his announcement of the legislation, HR4432. 


Against all this fighting, there remain questions about who really wants mandatory labeling. To be sure, there are companies catering to this segment of the population. Upscale grocer Whole Foods, for example, is in the midst of fulfilling a pledge to have everything in its U.S. and Canadian stores labeled by 2018. 

But whether the general public is clamoring for change on a larger scale is unclear. On one hand, polls have shown that when people are asked if they want GMO foods to be labeled, most say yes. But other polls show that most people don’t mention GMOs, when asked if there’s anything else they’d like to see on food labels.

Then there’s Cheerios. Earlier this year, General Mills made a splash when it announced it would no longer use GMO ingredients in its original Cheerios breakfast cereal. Other variations of Cheerios will continue using GMO ingredients. The move drew applause from anti-GMO circles, but it hasn’t done anything to boost sales. 

Labeling proponents say that means nothing. Critics, however, see it as evidence of how the average person views GMO ingredients. “Most consumers don’t go to the store and worry about these issues,” said Monsanto’s chief technology officer Robert Fraley. That, he said, highlights one of the dangers of food labeling laws: “You don’t want a small affluent section of the economy to drive up food costs.”

But what sort of impact would mandatory labeling have on food prices? The challenge of estimating the financial impact is that it depends heavily on several unknown factors, according to a recent paper published by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, whose membership includes Monsanto and other key industry players.

Among the authors is Alison Van Eenennaam, an extension specialist with the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis. “I listened to outrageous statements on both sides of the issue,” Van Eenennaam said. “There was no calm, reasonable discussion.” The paper concludes that consumers would end up paying more for food, it but doesn’t attempt to put a dollar figure on it. That’s because it largely depends on how companies respond to new laws, and whether activists mount campaigns targeting products with genetically modified ingredients. “There is one thing we can all agree on,” Van Eenennaam said. “It’s not going to be zero.”

Read the full, original article: Will consumers win or lose with GMO labeling?

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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