If there's nothing to hide ...

Earlier this week a bill that calls for labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO's) was approved by the state Senate with an overwhelming majority.

On its face, labeling food products that contains GMO's seems reasonable enough, and our belief is that this is a bill that should pass. It does not ban or prohibit the use of the substances, which many credit with boosting crop yields and possibly diminishing the need for some types of fertilizers.

In a world where the population keeps growing and living longer, and putting more and more pressure on food resources - along with wealthier populations in developing nations eager to move up the food chain and eat more and better foods - increasing crop yields is essential. We would have concerns if this bill were to evolve into some sort of quest to prohibit the use of GMOs all together, because that would be a mistake. While we get that for many folks, any kind of artificial substance integrated into the foods they eat will be suspect, the bulk of the evidence supports the view that they are not unsafe. Rigorous testing over the past 40 years since GMOs first arrived on the scene has borne that out repeatedly.

Ironically, opponents of GMO labeling - major agribusiness corporations like Monsanto and other makers - strengthen the hand of those would like to see GMOs eliminated from the food chain entirely. The old saying about if you have nothing to hide, what do you have to fear, would seem to apply in spades here. By resisting initiatives to label food containing GMOs, they feed into generalized suspicions about GMOs themselves. A smarter approach would be for major agribusinesses and bioengineering labs to push for a national standard of GMO labeling, rather than a costly patchwork of state-by-state measures. What lawmakers in Vermont might decide is the standard could be different from what their counterparts might think in Maine and Connecticut, the two other states which have recently passed GMO labeling requirement laws. Those two states also wrote in a "trigger" provision, meaning that their laws won't take effect until a minimum number of other states also pass comparable legislation. In the case of Maine, its five neighboring New England states would also have to enact similar laws on labeling. They want to be in a stronger legal position should Monsanto or one of the other businesses heavily invested in selling and using GMOs decide to initiate a lawsuit which potentially could ring up some hefty legal bills.

Vermont's proposed legislation, as of now, contains no such trigger. Once again, as with the proposed "single payer" health care bill, backers of the present bill seem to embrace the idea of being first in the nation because it's morally the right thing to do. That's fine, but it may not the financially prudent course to take. Vermont may have a low unemployment rate relative to the rest of the country, but rich and able to afford taking a case to the U.S. Supreme Court and risking losing (again, as we did on cases involving Vermont Yankee and campaign contributions), we are not.

The likelihood of such a lawsuit is high enough so that the state's lawmakers have included a $1.5 million legal fund to pay for the anticipated lawsuit.

On the federal level, there is a bill before the U.S. Congress that would nullify efforts by states to enact GMO labeling legislation, but instead of calling for a national standard, goes further backward and would make it impossible to impose a label about GMO content at all. This is a prime example of the agribusiness lobby shooting itself in the foot through overkill, and should be laughed out of Congress. Unfortunately, given the power and financial clout of agribusiness, it may get a more than fair hearing, time that would be better spent straightening out the current mess around immigration rules, to take one example.

A couple of million dollars in legal bills isn't going to bankrupt the state, but there are smart fights and then there are dumb ones. If there were conclusive evidence to suggest GMOs posed a real health hazard, we would agree that a labeling law is needed on the books immediately rather than in 2016 which is what the bill calls for. But broadly speaking, that's not the case. The full Senate should insert "trigger" language into the GMO labeling bill, pass that, and the Governor should sign it. Then, probably next year, after the mid-term elections, Congress should take a hard look at the issue and develop a national standard. We're under no illusion that's easier said than done. Meanwhile, if the lightbulbs do start to go on inside the corporate offices of the major agribusinesses, they would realize they could score a public relations coup and get on the right side of history with a transparent and full disclosure approach. No illusions about that, either.

What's sad and silly is that this should be a non-issue. A common sense solution is there for the taking. Too bad we'll probably have to do this the hard way, instead.


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