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Vermont pro-GMO labeling groups play Monsanto ‘fear card’ in deceptive fund-raising effort

You may have read recent posts on activist blogs about how “Mighty Monsanto” is taking the “tiny state of Vermont” to court over its labeling laws. “Monsanto Sues Vermont,” screamed one headline. According to the Organic Consumers Association, “Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a lawsuit” to block the bill.

To recap, back in April, Vermont passed a law mandating all foods to be labeled if they are made with genetically modified crops. The law is to take effect in July 2016. The text, which can be read here, has a section titled “Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Special Fund”.

The purpose of the fund is to “to pay costs or liabilities incurred by the Attorney General or the State in implementation and administration, including rulemaking, of the requirements  … for the labeling of food produced from genetic engineering.” Its text makes it clear that lawmakers anticipated a lawsuit by making provisions for the fund in case there is no “ongoing litigation” surrounding the law by July 2018.

Many analysts stated that a lawsuit was almost inevitable. The attorney general said he had advised lawmakers as they deliberated that the measure would invite a lawsuit from those affected and “it would be a heck of a fight, but we would zealously defend the law”” He was right, as a joint suit was filed earlier this month by a group of defendants.

In fact, this is not Vermont’s first experience with a lawsuit surrounding food labels, so one may say that the fund was set up based on “lessons learned”.

The lawsuit, whose full text can be found here, describes why the plaintiffs (i.e. the people who are suing) think that the law is illegal. These are the two points that standout:

The act is premised on a legislative finding that some consumers want to avoid food derived from genetic engineering because they distrust the FDA’s findings or otherwise object to the use or prevalence of biotechnology in agriculture. The State does not purport to share those views, however, and it has exempted broad categories of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients from these requirements.

The plantiffs are asking: “why do I have to label my products, but they don’t have to?” I agree here. Doesn’t make sense why some categories are exempt if the premise for the law is “right to know”.

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 product 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 authorized expert federal agencies.

Here, the plantiffs claim the law is in violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech by forcing a company to say something that it doesn’t want to say as long it is not violating any laws. Additionally, they are stating that labeling is regulated at a federal level, and it doesn’t make legal sense for a state to impose its own labeling requirements at the expense of everyone else.

The FDA provides guidelines on food labeling, and its website does a good job describing the regulations that genetically modified foods are subject to and the evaluations that the crops undergo. Regarding the labeling of genetically modified foods, it supports voluntary labeling of foods:

“We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering. Currently, food manufacturers may indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering, provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading. FDA supports voluntary labeling that provides consumers with this information and has issued draft guidance to industry regarding such labeling.

So that’s the outline of the lawsuit. Oh! One important point. Here are the plaintiffs:

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What the…?? Where’s Big Bad Monsanto that we’ve been reading so much about??

The loudest voice behind the claim that Monsanto is suing Vermont is SumOfUs.org, which is raising money to “defeat Monsanto.” At the moment, more than 22,000 people have contributed towards this fundraising effort.

Here’s the text of the SumOfUs fundraising campaign:

Just hours ago, the world’s most hated corporation got even more evil. Monsanto and its allies in the Grocery Manufacturers Association have just announced they’re suing the tiny, rural U.S. state of Vermont to stop a new law that simply requires genetically engineered foods to be labeled. In fact, the mere threat of a multi-million dollar lawsuit nearly caused the state to back off the labeling law altogether.

But Vermont is refusing to back down — and they’re asking for our help. They’re getting ready to fight back against Monsanto, and have even created a legal defense fund so people around the world can make donations to help them beat back Monsanto’s lawsuit.

The SumOfUs community is already fighting Monsanto on every front, but we need to show Monsanto now that we won’t be intimidated. We won’t let Monsanto bully our elected officials into submission. Will you chip in to stand with Vermont and fight back against Monsanto?

Hell yeah!! Who wouldn’t be frothing at the mouth after reading that??

Except that Monsanto isn’t a direct plaintiff in the lawsuit.

I wrote to SumOfUs.org to find out how the money would be spent. Here’s the full text of its response:

Thank you so much for your email and your question regarding our recent email to support Vermont as it begins its legal battle against Monsanto and its allies. SumOfUs is committed to helping the State of Vermont fight back, and that’s where your donation truly makes a difference. We do not have a breakdown at the moment.

Staff from the Vermont governor’s office reached out to us directly before we ran this fundraiser, and we’re talking with them about how we can best support the campaign. We’re planning to make a very significant contribution to the legal defense fund on behalf of our supporters, but if we have enough funds it might also be strategic for us to continue to campaign outside of the legal process to defend this law and undermine Monsanto’s position — in strong consultation with our partners. Vermont is very aware that they won’t be the last fight over GMO labeling in the US or around the world, and that other states need support too.

You can be confident that your gift will go towards fighting Monsanto and defending this law in Vermont, including through the legal defense fund. But if you’d rather donate directly to the fund exclusively, then you can do so here: Foodfightfundvt.org/donate-online

I wrote back to them and asked how a contribution would help in the legal “fight against Monsanto” if the company is not one of the plaintiffs. Here’s their response:

I wanted to provide you with the membership list from the GMA’s website, before it was removed earlier this year, to confirm that Monsanto is a member. It’s attached.

I’d also flag that in a political fight over labeling that did require disclosure, the Washington state ballot over labeling of GMOs, Monsanto contributed more than $5 million to the campaign to defeat it, while the GMA itself donated more than $7 million. GMA only disclosed their donors (as required under WA law) on that campaign after the WA Attorney General sued them to acquire that information.

Unfortunately, federal disclosure laws governing where GMA’s funding comes from are not as strong. It is clear, however, that both Monsanto and the GMA are prepared to spend large sums of money defeating labeling laws that do enjoy public backing, as in Vermont, and that their interest in transparency is minimal.

The attachment included in their email was a full list of GMA’s membership, which included Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as any food manufacturer you could rattle off the top of your head. The breakdown of corporate contributions through the GMA for the labeling law in Washington State can be found here.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Examining the science denial behind IFOAM—Organics International

Monsanto is one of 300 members of the GMA. The GMA told the Genetic Literacy Project that its public policy decisions are guided by a consensus of the companies; and that a decision was made three years ago by the membership to support a national standard on labeling and fight against piecemeal legislation. The GMA said it was prepared to file a similar suit in California if the labeling law had passed there last year.

One might argue that it’s a naïve perspective to think that Monsanto doesn’t have a huge stake in this issue. However, my perspective is that the food manufacturers have more to lose in this battle. Monsanto sells seeds (which are labeled, so any purchaser knows immediately if they are genetically modified or not). They do not sell the packaged foods that would be affected by this legislation.

If Chipotle’s and Ben & Jerry’s efforts to go GMO free have shown anything, it’s that ridding your supply chain from GMOs is not easy. General Mills, who now makes GMO-free Cheerios, has stated that it would not change the formulation for other products. This excellent depiction of the many aspects of the supply chain that would have to change in order to change a product from GMO-containing to GMO-free illustrates the difficulties inherent in any substantial change.

If this law is not overturned, I don’t think that Monsanto’s sales on existing products would drop very much; after all, Monsanto sells seeds to the non-GMO and organic market as well. No doubt future innovations would be impacted. As such, food manufacturers would be the parties with the greatest and most immediate costs to bear as a result of a labeling law. But you don’t see Pepsi or Mars’ name on any fundraising campaigns.

My theory is that SumOfUs and other anti-GMO groups put Monsanto’s name on this pitch to help fuel their fundraising campaigns.

If I were to participate in a survey, and were to be asked, “What image comes to mind when you think of ‘Grocery Manufacturers Association’?”, I’d say “Mr Hooper from Sesame Street.” No idea why, but it’s probably the word “grocer” in the phrase that evokes that memory. I’d be willing to bet that for the average American, the amount of money they’d donate for a campaign against “the world’s most hated corporation” versus a campaign against the “Snack Food Association” would be very different. The brands that the plaintiffs represent are your favorite snacks and beverages advertised each week during your favorite NFL games. Who would want to donate money against Coca-Cola or Mars? Because Coke ads have cute polar bears and Snickers ads have Betty White. We love polar bears and Betty White.

SumOfUs.org should not be singled out in this tactic. MoveOn.org has several petitions hoping to “block Monsanto from suing Vermont.” The Organic Consumers Association is raising funds to “help defeat Monsanto and the GMA.” It seems pretty clear that the reason why Monsanto is being used is to play on people’s sentiments and biases against the company.

I believe that these campaigns are misleading at best. Regardless of your feelings towards Monsanto, its customers (i.e. farmers) buy their products so they obviously need and want them. A dishonest campaign against Monsanto and farmers is not the way to go.

One thing is certain: the amount of money being spent for and against labeling is money wasted. The labeling debate will not be going away: in my home state of California, it was again brought before lawmakers last month despite being struck down in a referendum less than 2 years ago, and I have no doubt that it will be brought up again. The members of the GMA, including Monsanto, might want to consider making better use of their money educating the public about their products and their safety. Such efforts may help sway the public into realizing that a generic label that says “May Contain Genetically Engineered Crops” is not informative.

Layla Katiraee, contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project, holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and is a Senior Scientist in Product Development at a biotech company in California. All opinions and views expressed are her own. Her twitter handle is: @BioChicaGMO

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