- - Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Congress is scrambling to resolve the contentious issue of labeling genetically modified (GMO) food.

Producers are being forced to change products and packaging to comply with a new Vermont statute that profiles and stigmatizes genetic modification. Legislators are getting an earful, since GMO ingredients are in so many breads, snack foods, cereals, drinks and other edible products.

The Senate should take action to prevent the damage that would result from allowing Vermont and other states to foist fringe beliefs on the rest of the country. Otherwise, anti-biotechnology activists will create serious agricultural, environmental, packaged-food manufacturing and consumer problems.

Vermont has decided that food products, regardless of where and how they are manufactured, must now be prominently branded with a scarlet letter if they contain any GMO ingredients. Food companies are examining their products, devising new labels, and spending vast amounts of time and money on lawyers.

They need to be quick and careful because, beginning July 1, Vermont can impose daily fines of $1,000 per product for any perceived misstep.

S. 2609 gave the Senate an opportunity to join the House in blocking this insanity. Instead, the effort to end parochial labeling standards has been blocked by lawmakers who want to placate noisy activists seeking to use government power to “encourage” people to “go organic.”

These activists cannot cite actual scientific studies proving organic food is healthier — and certainly cannot say it’s more affordable. So now they are trashing conventional foods by raising hypothetical or imaginary “concerns” and requiring “warning labels” that deliberately create false impressions that GMO ingredients are unsafe.

Modern science — based on real-world studies of real food and people — has determined that there is no reason for concern about GMO ingredients. Literally hundreds of studies around the world have found no fault with genetic modification. Indeed, people have eaten some 2 trillion servings of food containing at least one GMO ingredient, without a single demonstrable incident of harm.

Many biotech crops require less land, water and pesticides than conventional or organic varieties. Others eliminate common allergens or incorporate nutrients, like the Vitamin A precursors that go into Golden Rice, which prevents childhood blindness and death.

None of this is relevant to anti-GMO farmers and pressure groups. But they have no problem with plant breeding done by exposing seeds to gamma radiation or powerful chemicals to cause genetic mutations — even though these techniques are far less precise than biotechnology.

Indeed, mutagenesis also causes many unseen (and potentially risky) genetic changes besides those chosen for their perceived benefits.

Few companies want warning labels slapped on their products, since many consumers will likely interpret “partially produced with genetic engineering” as saying “this product contains known carcinogens.”

If this low level of consumer knowledge seems unlikely or absurd, consider a recent study by Oklahoma State University professor Jayson Lusk. He found that 80 percent of Americans polled supported mandating labels for foods containing DNA.

To avoid lost sales, companies will start looking to change ingredients, which is when prices really start skyrocketing. Modern farms use GMO technology because it reduces the need for water, insecticides, weed control and discarding food that has been infested by insects, bacteria or fungal pathogens.

It is more expensive to grow non-GMO ingredients, and reformulation creates significant additional costs that will be passed along to consumers. The Corn Refiners Association says reformulation carries an annual price tag of $1,000 per family.

Things will get real dicey when other states jump on the bandwagon. California currently requires that electrical extension cords and jewelry carry warning labels urging people to “Wash hands after handling.”

Imagine such “concerns” being applied to food, especially when Vermont requires one label, California another, and New York still another. Of course, activists dismiss such impacts as irrelevant — or simply want to make life more difficult for conventional agriculture, and better for the organics’ bottom line.

That’s clear from examining who’s behind anti-GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. The Organic Consumers Fund, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and other representatives of the $60-billion-a-year Big Organic industry were the top donors for labeling drives.

Even though voters ultimately rejected the initiatives, the advertising still paid off by scaring more shoppers into pricey organic food outlets.

Big Organic knows that frightening companies away from GMO ingredients and into non-GMO substitutes will bring higher market share and profits. All it takes is a little help from lawmakers in Montpelier, and perhaps Sacramento, Albany and Washington, D.C.

For now, a few companies might decide it’s not worth doing business in a small state like Vermont. But the calculus changes when multiple states take inspiration from Vermont and go their own way.

A chaotic patchwork of labeling laws would be a nightmare for food companies and the public. That’s why it makes sense for federal lawmakers to come up with a workable compromise that sets a sensible, uniform labeling standard and pre-empts state efforts, as is already done with nutrition labeling.

What’s needed is one standard that provides real facts about GMOs, not misleading warning labels dreamed up by fear-mongering activists and their organic food sponsors.

Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of “Eco-Imperialism: Green power — Black death” (Merril Press, 2010).

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