Vermont’s legislature and governor got their science mixed up with their politics recently when they required the labeling of some genetically modified foods in that state.
But their new labeling bill does show flashes of reason that were conspicuously absent from a similar initiative this state rejected last fall. The labeling movement might want to take note.
Washington’s Initiative 522 was an industry-driven exercise in fear-mongering. It was designed to help growers and sellers of organic foods gain market share by stigmatizing the competition — farmers and food processors who market genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops.
Hard-core opponents of genetic engineering — the ones who hate the very idea of it — have a lot in common with climate change deniers. They reject, ignore or simply don’t look at the immense body of research that undercuts their beliefs. They treat outlying scientists as prophets and dismiss the majority as stooges. They exaggerate uncertainties.
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In Initiative 522, this translated into an attempt to put fright labels on the front of food containers that contained any detectable levels of genetically modified ingredients.
The Vermont measure started out the same way. As the legislative process ground on, though, the people working the bill experienced lucid moments. They wound up deciding that the label didn’t have to be emblazoned on the front or back of the box. The final bill left manufacturers the option of putting the information on the side.
It’s not a small detail. Mandatory labeling of the front of a box is an attempt to alarm consumers. Putting the label on the side — along with the dietary fiber, iron, vitamin D and whatnot — is informative. That’s how it’s done in Europe.
Vermont’s law also envisions a disclaimer “that the Food and Drug Administration does not consider foods produced from genetic engineering to be materially different from other food.” That’s even more informative.
Most informative would be a disclaimer acknowledging the full truth: Hundreds of studies — many funded independently of Monsanto and other vested interests — have found the genetically modified foods on the market to be perfectly safe.
Consumers ought to know that the European Commission, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and independent panels of the National Academy of Science have given the technology a clean bill of health.
It’s too much to hope that organic hardliners will give up their campaign to frighten people about genetically engineered foods. But Vermont’s law offers a glimmer of hope that labeling could be done in a more rational way.