photo by Karin Dalziel
Many Americans don’t know, and most don’t especially care, whether their food includes genetically modified crops, also known as GMOs. A highly vocal minority cares very much, however, and they want to “inform” GMOs right out of the marketplace.
The minority has won a victory in Vermont, where the state Legislature passed a bill requiring food makers to label products containing GMOs. It is worth noting that the “O” stands for “organisms,” a word chosen to suggest something clinical or menacing, in contrast to “crops,” which sound nourishing and essential. GMO opponents hope that plastering the GMO label on food packaging will scare consumers away, regardless of whether there is a rational basis for fear.
We may soon find out if they are right. Gov. Peter Shumlin said he would sign the bill into law, allowing its provisions to take effect in July 2016. This will probably make the Green Mountain State the first to require labeling of all processed foods and supermarket produce that contain any scientifically enhanced nutrition. I call it “SEN,” to try to equalize the two sides in the public relations battle. Maybe my acronym will catch on.
Consumers who want to avoid SENsible food can already do so to their hearts’ content, in all 50 states. They merely have to look for the word “organic.” Any food that is USDA-certified organic cannot be genetically modified or use genetically modified crops as ingredients, as per the Agriculture Department’s rules. Organic produce costs more, and it doesn’t carry any demonstrated health or nutritional advantage, but if people want to pay for it, they can. This is freedom of choice and I am all for it. What more do consumers who want to avoid the technology actually need?
Nothing more, if they simply want to be confident that their own food is SENs-less. But critics aren’t really satisfied with SENs-less food for themselves; they want it for everyone. Hence the push to require the new labels, which do not give consumers any real information about the nutritional or safety value of their foods. It is the same tactic by which abortion opponents seek to accomplish a good part of their goals by enforcing needless “safety” and “informational” requirements that have the effect of raising costs and closing or driving away facilities that make abortion available.
It may not be logical, but that does not mean such tactics don’t work. The European Union, which requires strict labeling of genetically modified products, has seen sharp drops in such products’ availability. Individual nations have also banned crops that the EU has approved, including a recent ban on Monsanto corn in France. Food makers in Europe had essentially no choice but to comply with labeling requirements, and the market there has shifted accordingly.
In Vermont’s case, producers will have the option of just pulling out of the market. Vermont’s population is too small to matter on a national scale. And in many parts of the state, people who are motivated can simply cross state lines to shop. Most consumers living along the Connecticut River already do a great deal of their shopping in New Hampshire, which has no sales tax. Brattleboro is a stone’s throw from Massachusetts, Bennington a short drive from New York, and the Champlain Valley and northeast corner of Vermont are in easy reach of Quebec. None require SENs-less labeling. Connecticut has passed a labeling bill, as has Maine, but both states have clauses preventing the rules from going into effect until surrounding states reach a tipping point. Vermont’s law is not enough to get them there.
The Wall Street Journal reported that 23 states total have one or more labeling bills pending, and some food producers and agriculture groups worry that Vermont’s bill could give some of those momentum. In the meantime, any food producers that do not pull out of Vermont will face higher costs for recordkeeping and compliance. Those costs will likely be passed along to consumers.
For now, the most obvious victims of Vermont’s SENs-less policy are its in-state grocers and the fraction of the population that is too poor and isolated to take advantage of alternatives out of state - a considerable share, in an economically struggling state.
Why such a seemingly self-defeating policy? Because beyond the ideological and Luddite left edge of the political spectrum there is a larger share of Vermont industry that grows relatively expensive food on small, uneconomic farms, much of it organically. Those food growers cater to the tastes or conceits of in- and out-of-state customers who believe food is better for you if you can see where it comes from while standing on your front steps. They stand to benefit if less expensive alternatives are made more expensive or are driven away entirely.
See? Even in Vermont, you can make SENse of political choices. Just follow the money.