VERMONT is again poised to be the state that steps out on labeling requirements. In 1995, it mandated the labeling of any dairy products containing milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), and now, it looks to require labeling of any retail food product that contains genetically modified ingredients (GMOs).
It took only a year for courts to overturn the mandatory rBST labeling law, holding that the right of producers not to divulge information on their production methods should be equal to consumers' right to know about the production methods.
Many of the same concepts are playing out in the GMO labeling debate.
Cathy Bacon, president of Vermont-based Freedom Foods, said the debate isn't about the government protecting everyone's right to know where their food comes from. "Everyone already has the right to know; no one is forcing any consumer to buy any product to satisfy their concerns," she said.
Bacon said she doesn't want the so-called "protection" that comes with a multimillion-dollar regulatory scheme. If consumers want to avoid GMOs, they can buy certified organic or even third-party-verified GMO-free products.
Rick Zimmerman, executive director of the Northeast Agribusiness & Feed Alliance, put it accurately when he said the GMO labeling campaign is really an "elitist campaign."
"Currently, we have choice today, but it will remove choice from the marketplace if you mandate choice," he explained.
Proponents of GMO labeling have stoked the fires of misunderstanding and outright lies. It's working for them. Bringing facts into play to offset an emotional issue seems to go nowhere.
No one wants to hear that food prices will rise. No one thinks about the small businesses that can't survive with a confusing patchwork of state regulations.
Despite the many attempts by farmers, commodity groups and agribusinesses to provide reason in the debate, the battle will be fought with millions — possibly billions — of dollars to try to educate states and slow further labeling mandates.
A federal solution is needed, but the current proposal on the table might as well be dead on arrival. As Bacon said, any state that's allowed to pass regulations that overrule the Food & Drug Administration's labeling guidelines is going to create conflict, which is what the federal bill aims to correct.
Genetic engineering of a naturally occurring hormone in cows was used to develop rBST, and it resulted in a nearly 20% increase in milk production and improved feed efficiency. However, public pressure led to labels advertising which products did not use rBST in the milk production process, which stigmatized rBST.
Zimmerman said losing the use of rBST technology was the result of years of court and state debates on rBST labeling. Fortunately, dairy producers in the U.S. have been able to adjust.
If the same occurs with biotechnology, the end result won't be the same.
"If we abandon biotechnology because of public pressure, people are going to die," Zimmerman said, referring to the inability to meet the food needs of the world's growing population using limited resources.
"It is tough headwaters to swim against," Zimmerman said. "The general public's lack of understanding of science in our life and the role of the risk of losing it creates a cocktail of confusion that poses a huge threat to our industry and on society."