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

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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
.

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