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GM Food: Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Corn on the Cob

Just over half of Americans say they wouldn’t buy a food they knew was genetically modified. Another 87 percent say they want to see GM labels at the grocery store. That’s one reason why Connecticut’s recent failure to require labeling is so surprising, says Treehugger. Now, genetically-modified food is controversial among consumers, farmers, and scientists, and it’s difficult to find a consensus on GM benefits and risks. The World Health Organization, for instance, while noting some potential human health hazards like gene transfer, maintains GM safety is a case-by-case issue.   

But the biggest opposition in Connecticut didn’t come from scientists. The reason the bill failed appears to be pressure from Monsanto, which reportedly threatened state legislators with legal action. This was the same tactic that got a GM labeling provision thrown out in Vermont last month, as the one thing cash-strapped states don’t need is a big lawsuit.

Back in 2007, then-candidate Obama said he supported labeling requirements for GM foods. But after years of silence and a high-profile national campaign last fall to get action from Washington (and another one earlier this year), many states have taken matters into their own hands. Mostly, it’s been slow going. In Minnesota, a bill requiring labels failed in March. Legislators voted down a similar bill in Washington state recently, reportedly after facing pressure from, you guessed it, Monsanto and other biotech firms.

But in California, voters have the ability to bypass their legislature in statewide ballot initiatives. Last week, they filed almost a million signatures to do just that, and this November, a GM labeling requirement will be on the ballot. The campaign took a swift ten weeks, says MarketWatch, and culminated in rallies across the state. Given that a clear majority of Californians support the initiative, it seems likely to pass.

What happens in the rest of the country is less certain. Even as state activists and legislators debate GM safety and labeling, the Department of Agriculture is set to approve a new GM corn crop which poses potential health hazards to farmers and consumers. The crop is resistant to a herbicide called 2,4-D, a chemical now used on golf courses to kill large weeds, reports Huffington. 2,4-D, an active ingredient in Agent Orange, has been linked to health problems like cancer and birth defects, but now may coat millions of acres of modified corn. GM safety may be a case-by-case question, but many scientists are concerned about this one.

And for the USDA, and Obama, all this is nothing new. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the department hasn’t denied approval for a GM crop since they began appearing in the mid-1990s. Last year, after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack got cold feet about a White House plan to allow unrestricted GM alfalfa, he fell back in line almost immediately. The reason, says Tom Philpott in Grist, was almost certainly political pressure from an administration with strong ties to agribusiness and biotech.

Even if states like California can enforce labeling requirements, changing how we grow food to reflect people’s concerns about GM is much more difficult. What all this means is that GM skeptics have an uphill battle, not just from big chemical companies or inactive state legislatures, but also from the federal government.  

Image by Darwin Bell, licensed under Creative Commons.  

Sources: Treehugger, WHO, Mother Jones, Grist, Organic Consumers Association, MarketWatch, Huffington, OnEarth, San Francisco Chronicle.