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Activists push new strategy on biotech crops

Vermont labeling law stalls as attention shifts to California



Contributing writer

On an April weeknight in Montpelier, the Vermont House Agriculture Committee held a public hearing on a bill to require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.

To the surprise of even the bill’s supporters, more than 400 people showed up.

“Nobody was prepared for the amount of public support and the passion of that support,” said Andrea Stander, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Rural Vermont, one of the organizers of a statewide coalition supporting labeling. “Even we were overwhelmed by how many people turned out. … Many legislators said they had not seen so much interest and so many people on any other issue since the civil union law.”

That evening, 112 people testified. Not one spoke against the bill, though some faulted it for not going far enough.

The committee ultimately voted 9-1 to advance the bill. But the issue never came to a floor vote in the full House.

In the second year of the biennial legislative session, time was running out. The bill’s progress stalled in the face of concerns by some legislators and Gov. Peter Shumlin that the state might not be able to defend itself against a threatened lawsuit by biotechnology companies opposed to the labeling law.

“Vermont has gone head to head with some very large corporations and lost, so there’s a high degree of sensitivity,” Stander explained.

In the past few years, the state has lost high-profile legal cases involving its attempts to regulate campaign contributions, marketing by pharmaceutical companies and the relicensing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Dissatisfaction over the court losses has helped to fuel a Democratic primary challenge to the incumbent state attorney general, William Sorrell, this year.

But fears of a court battle seem unlikely to quiet the coalition of consumer groups, organic farmers and others who favor labeling of genetically engineered foods.

This year’s lobbying effort in Montpelier included a busload of activists who traveled to the capital city from Rutland, organized by a local organic farmer. In a new wave of activism sweeping the nation, Vermont was one of as many as 20 states in which citizens pushed for labeling legislation this year.

At the national level, the Just Label It campaign delivered more than 1 million signatures to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calling on the agency to require labeling of genetically altered foods.

And in California, activists have collected nearly a million signatures, far exceeding the number required, to put the labeling issue to a statewide vote in November. Opponents of the ballot question -- biotech corporations, food manufacturers and large-scale farming operations – are expected to spend heavily in an effort to defeat it.

Public opinion is strongly in favor of labeling, however. A national CBS/New York Times poll in 2008 found that 87 percent of people favored labeling of genetically engineered foods, while a poll conducted in March by the Mellman Group found 91 percent favored labeling.

About 50 other countries, including most of the nations in Europe, require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

Widespread use

Foods made from genetically engineered crops began appearing on supermarket shelves in the mid-1990s, and within a few years the vast majority of processed foods contained these ingredients.

Today, about 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered.

More such products are on the way. This year, Monsanto is introducing a new variety of genetically engineered sweet corn. The biotech giant also bought a large vegetable seed company, signaling its plans widen its offering of engineered vegetables.

Already an estimated 13 percent of the acreage in zucchini is genetically engineered, as are almost all the papayas on the market. Multiple field trials of genetically engineered wheat are under way.

Unlike plants developed through traditional breeding practices, genetically engineered varieties contain foreign genes extracted from animals, bacteria or unrelated species of plants. Critics say this makes the altered crops fundamentally different – and risky.

“Genetic-engineered foods are poorly understood, under-researched and under-regulated," said David Rogers, a policy adviser for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. The farmers group is part of a statewide coalition pushing Vermont’s labeling bill.

Defenders of genetically modified crops, including biotech companies and some farming organizations, characterize the new crops as a technological triumph that could boost production and lower food costs.

But drawing on his background in microbiology, Rogers disputes the assumption that genetic engineering is a precise science.

“Scientists have no control over where exactly a gene is inserted, although the location will influence how it behaves,” he said. “The results are not predictable. And when you stick in a new gene, you’re also including various switches and promoters.”

Debating risks, science

The decision not to label genetically engineered foods was made two decades ago, before they entered the marketplace, when the federal government took the position that engineered crops were “substantially equivalent” to conventional varieties.

“Back then, the body of evidence that we have now didn't yet exist,” Rogers said. “We didn’t know how genes interacted with one another. We had no idea that genes can be doing multiple duties. Just a single gene insertion can change the expression of a significant number of other genes.”

Defenders of genetically modified crops, including the Vermont Farm Bureau, continue to argue that there is no significant difference between engineered varieties and those crafted through traditional breeding techniques.

But when a member of the Vermont House Agriculture Committee said no one has ever gotten sick from eaten genetically engineered foods, Rogers had a ready response.

“How would we ever know?” he asked.

In studies where mammals have been fed genetically engineered food, he said, scientists have observed changes in organs and bodily functions that have not been explained. And although billions of people are eating a diet containing genetically engineered foods, no studies of the possible human health effects are being conducted.

Some crops such as corn have been engineered to become resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to apply these chemicals more liberally without risk of damaging their crops. But the increased use of herbicides has bred resistance in weeds, prompting biotech companies to develop new crop varieties that will be resistant to even more powerful herbicides.

Dow Chemical, for example, is currently seeking government approval to release a newly engineered corn variety that would be resistant to 2,4-D, a powerful herbicide that was a component in Agent Orange. Proponents say 2,4-D-resistant corn is needed because a widely used type of engineered corn, created to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, has resulted in the evolution of Roundup-resistant “superweeds.”

But consumer and environmental groups warn that the new corn variety will lead to as much as a tenfold increase in the use of 2,4-D, which has been linked to cancer and other serious health problems. Some farmers also fear that 2,4-D, which spreads through the air more easily than Roundup, will imperil crops other than corn that haven’t been engineered for resistance to the herbicide.


Shifting strategy
Past attempts to enact labeling laws in states around the country have met with intense opposition from biotech and agribusiness interests.

Because the federal government has concluded that genetically altered crops aren’t fundamentally different, the biotech industry argues that there’s no justification for labeling engineered products. Labeling, the industry contends, creates the impression that there’s something “wrong” with the products.

Labeling proponents counter that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, regardless of whether any particular health risks have been proven.

In this year’s debate in Vermont, the governor pointed to the state’s experience in the 1990s, when it passed a law to require labeling of dairy products from cows treated with an artificial growth hormone. A federal appeals court blocked the state from enforcing the law, siding with dairy producers who argued that labeling violated their freedom of speech. The dairy companies said milk from the hormone-treated cows was indistinguishable from milk from other cows.

Shumlin said he had supported the dairy labeling law in the 1990s but feared a similar law for genetically modified foods would meet with the same fate in court.

In the dairy case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the state from enforcing its labeling law. The state declined to pursue an appeal.

This year, however, activists pushing for labeling bills around the country have taken a different tack to get around the industry’s legal claims.

Under the legislation introduced in Vermont and other states, any food that is genetically engineered or possibly contains engineered ingredients would be considered misbranded if it were not labeled. Calling genetically engineered food “natural” would also be prohibited.

Federal law explicitly gives states the power to regulate misbranded foods, thus overcoming the issue that the state laws would be pre-empted by federal regulations. A food is considered misbranded if its label or advertising makes false or misleading claims or fails to reveal adequate facts about it.

The Vermont bill did not cover foods derived from animals receiving genetically engineered feed or drugs, such as bovine growth hormone. Foods that are certified organic also would have been exempt, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards don't allow genetically engineered plants and animals to be called organic.

The bill specified no penalty for producers that unintentionally used genetically engineered foods without labeling them -- as long as they exercised due diligence.

The crucial shift in how the labeling legislation is framed came about after advocacy groups like the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety and Non-GMO Project put their heads together. Determined to break the logjam, they did extensive legal research and drafted a piece of model legislation.


Multi-state effort
Stander said Rural Vermont was invited by groups working on the national level to put a bill forward in Vermont. The national groups also offered support and guidance to citizens groups that would support the bill. As a result, grassroots campaigns unfolded simultaneously this spring in numerous states.

Some members of the House Agriculture Committee suggested rewriting the bill to focus on labeling foods that are free of genetically modified ingredients. But others pointed out that it’s far more onerous to prove that a food is free of genetically engineered ingredients than to show that it may contain them. (Some food producers, however, do get their products tested for the presence of transgenes or contract with a third-party certifier.)

Some opposition came from makers of specialty foods such as croutons and chocolate. They argued that if Vermont goes at it alone on labeling genetically engineered ingredients, Vermont food businesses would be put at a competitive disadvantage. The state’s grocers also opposed the labeling bill.

Other food producers embraced the labeling bill, however. The small soup maker Two Guys in Vermont, for example, indicated it is proud to be free of genetically engineered ingredients. Also testifying in favor of the bill were some farmers who, although not organic, have developed a market niche for products they work to keep free from genetically engineered materials.

As the House committee was considering the labeling bill, a representative of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry trade group, called in and warned that that the organization saw the bill as “an imminent threat” and would go to court to have the law thrown out before it even went into effect. This communication made some legislators and the governor's staff “sit back and take a second glance at it.”

Stander said committee members didn’t back down. They had concluded that the state had a compelling interest in labeling, documented through testimony by citizens and industry experts.

The committee also included a “trigger clause” in the bill, delaying it from taking effect until California and two Northeastern states had passed similar measures. Earlier this year, Connecticut appeared poised to pass its own bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods, but the labeling language was stripped from the bill before it came to a final vote.

Stander said activists in Maine, New Jersey and Massachusetts have contacted the Vermont coalition to seek assistance with their own campaigns.

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