Vermont governor Peter Shumlin signed the nation’s first genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling law on May 8, 2014. Within a mere day, national trade organizations announced plans to sue and overturn it.

The law, which would take effect in July of 2016, requires any food available for retail sale to be labeled if it has been even partially produced with genetic engineering. It excludes food served in restaurants; alcohol and milk, eggs, and meat from GMO-fed animals. The bill was passed after lawmakers were won over by a series of grassroots campaigns demanding that consumers have a “right to know” what is in the food they consume. It was passed with bi-partisan support from a large majority of state residents.

While other states have passed conditional GMO-labeling bills, Vermont’s is the first “no-strings-attached” law, according to the non-profit Center for Food Safety. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that will only go into effect if neighboring states also require GMO labeling, a strategy to protect individual states from suffering the cost of the new policy.

Vermont, on the other hand, now must face irate trade groups, such as The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents General Mills and other food industry behemoths. They argue that GMO crops pose no human health or environmental risks, and that the law will only increase food prices and obstruct interstate commerce.

Likewise, the Biotechnology Industry Organization also condemned the new law, stating that “GM crops have enabled farmers to produce more on less land with fewer pesticide applications, less water and reduced on-farm fuel use.” The trade group has also warned that the new law could increase the average household’s food costs by as much as $400 a year.

Proponents of the law question why companies so vehemently oppose labeling–if food companies are certain of GMOs’ safety, then identifying them should not cause such industry panic, they argue.

Today, the majority of commodity crops in the United States are genetically engineered using molecular biology techniques. Typically, plants are modified to become more resistant to heavy pesticide application or to boost nutrition. However, many environmental activists and public interest groups have criticized the practice for unintended environmental and human health risks that accompany the practice. Pesticide resistance, gene transfer to other organisms, allergies, and other unknown effects on human health are some of the main concerns.

Scientific research has been inconclusive on whether GMOs are as safe for human consumption as non-GMO foods. One French study found that up to eighty percent of rats fed genetically modified corn developed large tumors, which raised serious questions about the safety for human consumption. However, the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology–the scientific journal that originally published the report–retracted the publication after intense opposition from Monsanto and others in the GMO industry.

The anticipated industry lawsuits will likely involve three constitutional strategies: the law violates the businesses’ First Amendment commercial free speech rights, is federally preempted, and interferes with the federal government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce. The outcome is far from certain; one memo from Emord & Associates concludes that the law is constitutionally sound, while another memo analyzing a nearly identical Hawaii bill concludes the exact opposite.

With 93 percent of Americans supportive of GMO labeling laws, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and others may have their work cut out for them.

 

–Lorraine Baer

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