Itís possible that the principal effect of the law requiring the labeling of genetically modified food will be to demonstrate to Vermonters how prevalent and unavoidable GMO food has become. That would be a valuable lesson in itself.
The House voted by an overwhelming margin this week to approve a bill calling for the labeling of food products. Popular backing for the measure is extensive, and legislators appear to have put aside concern about the costly litigation that is likely to follow the signing of the bill. The message from constituents has been that Vermont should not be intimidated by big agribusiness companies seeking to dictate farm policy in the state. The feeling of many is that if Monsanto wants to file a lawsuit, itís a fight worth having and paying for.
Itís hard to know how the labeling law will play out, should it survive legal challenge. GMOs have worked their way into the food stream so extensively that among some products, they may be hard to escape. Corn is one such product. Corn syrup is a common sweetener, and it is likely that a good share of the corn produced in the country is from genetically modified seed stock. Will Coke have to be labeled? Will the loaves of bread on the grocery shelves have to show that they were made from genetically modified wheat?
The big food manufacturers donít want to go to that trouble or to make plain to the public the extent to which the food industry has been subjected to the manipulation of genetic modification. To them, itís a free-speech right. They donít like to be compelled to express speech that is not germane to the health and safety of a product.
A given product with a GMO label may be fine to consume. We are consuming GMO food already. What GMO labels may testify to is the health and safety of the food system as a whole, and that would be a valuable lesson to learn.
The advance of industrial agriculture has had a variety of damaging effects. Dependence on chemicals, combined with GMO seed, has laid to waste vast stretches of farmland, encouraging monoculture agriculture that depletes the complex life of the soil. Monoculture agriculture also tends to create consolidation among farms, meaning fewer giant farms are left to produce a narrower range of standard crops. In addition, little is known about the long-term effects that alteration of the genetic makeup of species will have on the broader environment.
In contrast, a movement is growing in Vermont and elsewhere recognizing how important it is to tend to the health of soil as the basis of healthy food and human health. It is not necessary to adopt strict organic methods to carry out healthy agriculture based on respect for the soil and the animals. But introducing GMO seeds into a healthy agricultural environment is to introduce an unnecessary and damaging industrial dependence.
Some GMO foodstuffs are useful in particular situations when they are researched and well understood. Resistance to a ban on GMOs on the island of Hawaii came from papaya growers who depended on GMO papaya trees to withstand disease. It seemed to be a targeted narrow use of a genetically modified organism. If the papayas were labeled as GMO products, an educated consumer might well realize that if he wanted a papaya at all, it would have to be a GMO.
In Vermont, the labeling law is the first blow in an awareness campaign about the way the U.S. agricultural sector has become a captive of giant billion-dollar industries seeking to hook farmers on their products. Vermonters have learned to appreciate the wide range of wholesome food provided by Vermont producers. That those products are free of the GMO label may offer them a competitive advantage, another reason the big agribusiness companies are likely to come down hard on Vermont. They might win. But by making its case, even in a losing battle, Vermont also wins in a more fundamental and important way.
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