When Vermont, affectionately known by its residents as The Green Mountain state, passed Act 120 in 2014, it triggered national debates about federal standards and transparency. Act 120, which passed with a vote of 114-30 in the House and 28-2 in the Senate, requires that all foods created either entirely or partially by genetic engineering contain a label that states “produced with genetic engineering”.
A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is the result of artificially inserting a gene from one species into the genome of another species. The inserted gene can come from bacteria, viruses, plants, or even humans. GMOs increase agricultural yield, produce their own toxins against certain insects, and are resistant to bacteria. The manipulation of genes can also result in food that is more nutritious than non-GMO food.
Proponents of GMOs say that this biotechnology might hold the key to solving world hunger in the face of rapidly increasing world populations. Aside from increased agricultural production that have the capability of producing food with a higher nutrition content, the future of GMOs may include foods with vaccine producing proteins which can immunize individuals against a wide range of preventable diseases such as Hepatitis B.
Those who oppose the continued use of GMO’s as a food source argue that the long term effects of GMOs on human health is largely unknown and unstudied. They also note that Monsanto, the world’s largest producer and owner of GMO foods is also the seller of Roundup: Monsanto, an environmentally destructive weed killer that can now be used profusely since GMOs are herbicide resistant.
There is also disagreement over whether or not companies should be required to place GMO labels on their products.
Texas senator Ted Cruz, who is opposed to GMO food labeling, stated, “...We shouldn’t let anti-science zealotry shut down the ability to produce low cost, quality food for billions across the globe.”
Vermont governor Peter Shumlin voiced his support for GMO labeling as an extension of nutrition labeling when he stated, “We already require food companies to label nutritional values such as calories or sugar content and to include an ingredient list.”
Both proponents and opponents of GMOs feel strongly about the labeling process and standards involved, so perhaps it is not surprising that GMO labeling, though a relatively small part in the wider scope of this issue, has ignited a flurry of debate, lobbying and advocacy.
This year, the U.S Congress passed S.764, a bill with bipartisan support that many see as a compromise between organic farms and large GMO producers. The bill states that GMO ingredients must be disclosed and can be done using QR codes rather than explicit labeling. At the same time, this bill does not contain any requirements that would prevent organic food producers from differentiating themselves by labeling that they do not use GMOs. While the bill does invalidate Vermont’s Act 120, it would allow for the creation of a federal standard rather than a patchwork of varying laws among the 50 states.
Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, expressed his support for the bill saying, “We believe that the bill ... provides consumers the information they need without stigmatizing a safe and sustainable food technology…there is too much at stake to let the consequences of the Vermont law linger any longer.”
Others, like the New York Times Editorial Board, called the bill flawed because, “It would allow food companies to put the information in electronic codes that consumers would have to scan with smartphones or at scanners installed by grocery stores. The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voiced his opposition to the bill stating that it is “a confusing, misleading and unenforceable standard for labeling genetically modified food.”
The White House has signaled that President Obama intends to sign bill S.764. The bill has ignited conversations about GMO safety, the role of large food companies, and the need for consumer transparency. Currently, 70% of food in stores are thought to have GMO ingredients and about 90% of corn and soybean grown in the United States are estimated to be GMOs. In contrast to these numbers, around 53% of consumers polled said that they would not buy GMO foods.
Many say the future of food lies at the intersection of agriculture and technology. While there are proven risks and benefits to this approach, the question of transparency and the right of consumers to be aware of the foods they consume remains at the forefront of the debate. How can the benefits of GMOs be utilized while respecting the consumer’s right to transparency? Without a doubt, we will continue to see future legislation and heated debate on this issue while attempting to find the perfect medium between food, technology and consumers’ rights.
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Cristina Abraham is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and an International Relations major. She is currently interning with Vote Smart in the Key Votes Department. For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at email@example.com or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.