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To GMO or Not to GMO: A Nationwide Debate

Added by Hawley Troxell in Articles & Publications, Business Law on May 22, 2014

For those unfamiliar with the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) debate, GMO crops are genetically engineered crops which are typically altered to withstand pesticides or resist insect damage or other viruses or diseases. GMOs were approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995. Since the approval of GMO food for human consumption, the FDA has never required food labels to point out the presence of GMO ingredients though many countries have banned GMO crops outright or require labeling of GMO products. Recently Vermont became the first state in the nation to pass a law which requires food offered for retail sale that is either entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such by July 2016. While Maine and Connecticut have also passed laws requiring labeling, Vermont’s law is the first to have no conditions precedent to the labeling requirement (Maine and Connecticut require a fixed number of other states pass GMO labeling laws before they can be enacted). Other states such as California (in 2012) and Washington (in 2013) have put the matter to a vote, both voting initiatives fell short of reaching the threshold to require changes to existing labeling laws.

On May 20, 2014, Jackson County, Oregon passed a ban on GMO crops requiring farmers to “harvest, destroy or remove all genetically engineered plants” within twelve months of the enactment of the ordinance. With the passing of the Vermont law and the ban of GMO food in Jackson County, Oregon there is no doubt that the larger GMO-free movement is picking up support and some political momentum. According to a Reuters article dated April 9, 2014, there are currently sixty-six active bills and ballot initiatives in twenty-seven states aimed at requiring the labeling of foods which contain GMOs (there is no proposed legislation in Idaho). Health food giant Whole Foods has vowed to label GMO food by 2018 within its US and Canadian stores (GMOs are already labeled in their UK stores). Recently representatives from Kansas and Georgia introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives that would create a nationwide, voluntary GMO labeling program; the two lawmakers argue that a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws could increase the cost of food by thirty percent. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act or HR 4432 aims to establish a national standard and remind everyone that the FDA is the nation’s foremost authority on the use and labeling of foods. The bill is not expected to be enacted.

Opponents to a mandatory GMO labeling system note (1) the increase costs to food production, (2) the fact that GMO food has been a part of our lives for nearly twenty years without known unique negative externalities, (3) the potential for consumer confusion and (4) a lack of scientific evidence as to any differences between genetically altered crops and crops raised under conventional methods. Companies such as Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) continue to develop GMO strains and dispute any claim that GMO crops are not safe to consume. Producers utilizing genetic engineering and biotechnologies further note the savings from chemical purchases, fuel, equipment maintenance and yield increases of GMO crops over conventional methods making agriculture a more profitable endeavor and providing a lower overall cost of food to consumers.

Other questions exist as well – If we are to implement a GMO labeling system, how will this be achieved? What are the economic and noneconomic costs? Should the scope of such a labeling system include meat and dairy products, where the livestock consumed GMO corn, soy or wheat (derivative labeling)? Can state laws withstand constitutional scrutiny under current commerce clause jurisprudence? While only time will tell where the GMO debate goes from here, rest assured the polarizing nature of the debate will continue to be at the forefront of the discussion related to our nation’s food supply.

For more information contact a member of our Business Practice group or call 208.344.6000.