Federal standard needed for GMOs

Recently, Vermont became the first state to mandate de facto warning labels on genetically improved foods (GIFs), also referred to as GMOs. There is no scientific reason to require any sort of special labeling on GIFs, a position explicitly endorsed by the American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It’s not a food safety issue.

The fact that a state with roughly 0.2percent of the country’s population can force food manufacturers to make costly changes to their labels and expose them to legal liability for no valid reason calls out for a federal solution. Fortunately, that solution is on the horizon.

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The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 4432), a bipartisan piece of legislation recently introduced in the House of Representatives, would correct the scientific illiteracy currently being foisted on states like Vermont and ensure a consistent national food labeling policy. The bill would require labeling only where a material difference between a GIF and its conventionally bred counterparts exists, subject genetically engineered crops to testing by the Food and Drug Administration, and establish national labeling standards for “natural” foods and for voluntary GIF-free labeling.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need national GIF labeling standards. There is no credible science linking GIFs currently approved for mass cultivation to any health harms. In fact, GIFs bring a host of agricultural and environmental benefits. They offer farmers the ability to reduce pesticide use, to stop using the most dangerous herbicides, and even reduce carbon emissions.

But radical green groups like the Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, and Food and Water Watch spread misinformation, deny science, and mislead politicians in order to promote their allies in organic food. Organic standards forbid the use of GIFs, so there are significant incentives for these producers to scaremonger about the technology. They hope a mandatory label will be seen as tantamount to a warning.

According to a recent report co-authored by a University of Illinois professor emeritus, consumers have been hoodwinked into believing GIFs are bad by a “multi-decade public disinformation campaign” led by the organics industry and the activists it funds. Thus, the national standards in H.R. 4432 are a regrettable necessity when state lawmakers are facing a heavy propaganda campaign backed by Big Organic.

For instance, EWG claims that GIF use results in increased herbicide use because of resistance. That’s not accurate: Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (hardly a bought agent of a nefarious business community) show that herbicide use by weight has declined since the widespread adoption of GIF crops in the 1990s. And the herbicides farmers are using like glyphosate (trade name Roundup) are less dangerous than those used in the past.

Internationally, the cost of GIF denial can be measured in human lives. According to the World Health Organization, Vitamin A deficiency causes up to 500,000 children per year to go blind — and many thousands to die. One GIF, golden rice, that would provide Vitamin A in a staple food is in advanced stages of testing, and may combat this entirely preventable disease.

The problem? Activists—most notoriously Greenpeace—are fighting golden rice, using the same thoroughly debunked talking points they push on American legislators to demand unscientific warning labels. Americans may not suffer from a pandemic of Vitamin A deficiency, but by resisting the scaremongering on GIFs we offer substantial moral support to academics and researchers who are trying to bring these technologies to the people who need them.

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and GIF promoter who is credited with saving a billion lives, was recently honored with a statue in the Capitol. Congress can build on this legacy by taking a stand for science, stymieing the activists, and advancing national standards that promote proper food labeling.

Coggin is a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a project of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education managed by Berman and Company, a public relations firm.