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    GM Food: Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

    Just over half of Americans
    say they wouldn’t buy a food they knew was genetically modified. Another 87 percent
    say they want to see GM labels at the grocery store. That’s one reason why Connecticut’s
    recent failure to require labeling
    is so surprising, says Treehugger. Now, genetically-modified
    food is controversial among consumers, farmers, and scientists, and it’s difficult
    to find a consensus on GM benefits and risks. The World Health Organization,
    for instance, while noting some potential human health hazards like gene
    transfer, maintains GM
    safety is a case-by-case issue
    .   

    But the biggest opposition
    in Connecticut
    didn’t come from scientists. The reason the bill failed appears to be pressure
    from Monsanto, which reportedly threatened state legislators with legal action.
    This was the
    same tactic
    that got a GM labeling provision thrown out in Vermont last
    month, as the one thing cash-strapped states don’t need is a big lawsuit.

    Back in 2007,
    then-candidate Obama said he supported labeling requirements for GM foods. But
    after years of silence and a high-profile
    national campaign
    last fall to get action from Washington (and another
    one
    earlier this year), many states have taken matters into their own
    hands. Mostly, it’s been slow going. In Minnesota,
    a bill requiring labels failed in
    March
    . Legislators voted
    down
    a similar bill in Washington
    state recently, reportedly after facing pressure from, you guessed it, Monsanto
    and other biotech firms.

    But in California, voters have the ability to
    bypass their legislature in statewide ballot initiatives. Last week, they filed
    almost a million signatures to do just that, and this November, a GM labeling
    requirement will be on the ballot. The campaign took a
    swift ten weeks
    , says MarketWatch,
    and culminated in rallies across the state. Given that a clear majority of
    Californians support the initiative, it seems likely to pass.

    What happens in the rest
    of the country is less certain. Even as state activists and legislators debate
    GM safety and labeling, the Department of Agriculture is set to approve a new
    GM corn crop which poses potential health hazards to farmers and consumers. The
    crop is resistant
    to a herbicide called 2,4-D
    , a chemical now used on golf courses to kill
    large weeds, reports Huffington. 2,4-D,
    an active ingredient in Agent Orange, has been linked to health problems like
    cancer and birth defects, but now may coat millions of acres of modified corn. GM
    safety may be a case-by-case question, but many
    scientists are concerned
    about this one.

    And for the USDA, and Obama,
    all this is nothing new. According to the San
    Francisco Chronicle
    , the department hasn’t
    denied approval
    for a GM crop since they began appearing in the mid-1990s. Last
    year, after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack got cold feet about a White House plan to
    allow unrestricted GM alfalfa, he fell
    back in line almost immediately
    . The reason, says Tom Philpott in Grist, was almost certainly political
    pressure from an administration with strong ties to agribusiness and biotech.

    Even if states like California can enforce
    labeling requirements, changing how we grow food to reflect people’s
    concerns about GM is much more difficult. What all this means is that GM
    skeptics have an uphill battle, not just from big chemical companies or
    inactive state legislatures, but also from the federal government.  

    Image by Darwin Bell,
    licensed under Creative
    Commons
    .

    Sources: Treehugger,
    WHO,
    Mother
    Jones
    , Grist,
    Organic
    Consumers Association,
    MarketWatch,
    Huffington,
    OnEarth,
    San
    Francisco Chronicle
    .

    Published on May 8, 2012

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