Jolley: Spending Five Minutes with GMO's (OMG!)

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Shock You might have heard about that Vermont bill mandating all foods containing GMO's be clearly labeled. The subject is the current hot button for the OMG! foodies. Actually, Politico reported it fell strangely short of being absolute. The bill (H. 112) says almost all genetically engineered edibles sold must be highlighted with the exceptions of 'animal feed and some food-processing aids, such as enzymes for making yogurt.'

Odd that animal feed and yogurt get free passes but Little Debbie Cakes have to wear the scarlet letters "Contains GMO's." forcing those kiddie lunch faves to slink to the bottom of the supermarket shelves in abject shame. 

There is some federal kickback, though, on bills that step on Washington's delicate legislative toes.  Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo (r) is sponsoring the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014. It permits voluntary GMO labeling and prohibits states from passing mandatory GMO labeling laws. It perversely allows food manufacturers to use the word “natural” on products that contain GMO’s, an odd permission slip from the House's hall monitor that won't go down well with a lot of people. 

Food&Water Europe is worried about that feed thing overlooked by the Green Mountain State. Last week, the Euro-based frantic food publication wrote, "The Spanish organic cattle industry is also seriously affected by GM contamination. Forced to import maize from other countries that do not grow GM crops, farmers need to pay extra costs to guarantee GM-free feed." And if the fear started there, you can bet it will soon spread to the U.S.

It's the frank, science-based discussion of GMO's and their impact on world food supplies that many in agriculture think is lacking. Steve Holt, who writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications, talked with Kimberly Hagen after she previewed Farmland. Hagen, who has raised sheep for 28 years in Vermont, was disappointed that just a line or two was spent discussing GMO's.

Holt wrote, "To her, the brushoff is another example of the industry and its farmers justifying the large-scale, industrial farming that's come to dominate the industry over the last several decades—an approach they see as 'under attack.' Hagen disagrees—alternative approaches to food production are more about the realities of a changing climate than about some ideological disagreement." 

But the whole GMO debate goes much deeper than Hagen's realities.  None of the laws - proposed or passed, local, state or federal - are completely honest.  Special case exemptions abound.  Free passes have been handed to restaurants, alcohol, and deli foods. If cows are given feed containing GMO's and their milk goes into cheese or yogurt, those products can still be labeled organic. 

California's failed prop 37 demanded that every food containing GMO's had to be labeled but left the door open for organic foods, alcohol, certain retail meats, cheeses, dairy products and eggs. Food served in  restaurants and baked goods were also exempt.  What little was left, mostly pre-packaged foods in the supermarket perishables sections, had to be labeled.   

Jumping into the battle, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technologies (CAST) issued a new report titled “The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods in the United States,” which examines the scientific, legal and economic impact of GMO labeling.

CAST concluded there is no scientific justification for mandatory labeling. The authors thought voluntary labeling programs, such as the Non-GMO Project, provided consumers with adequate information to help them select non-genetically engineered foods. Government regulations were not needed.

CAST rightfully claimed that state-based labeling laws will run into a barrage of special interest groups' legal challenges about unfair restrictions to interstate commerce and international trade, long standing federal authority, and the First Amendment's protection of “commercial speech.”  The American Meat Institute and other meat industry groups have already used that First Amendment argument in their legal challenge to Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).

The report asks for "independent, objective information to be provided to consumers and legislators on the scientific issues, legal ramifications and economic consequences of mandatory labeling, especially in states that now have labeling initiatives on the ballot."

Alison Van Eenennaam, geneticist and Cooperative Extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the CAST report, explained it this way: "Mandating process-based food labeling is a very complex topic with nuanced marketing, economic and trade implications depending upon how the labeling laws are written and how the market responds.”

The nuance that counts, though, is the public's fast-growing desire to know what they are putting on the dinner table and even faster-growing distrust of those twin faux monsters, Big Ag and Big Food.  The anti-GMO crowd has done an excellent job with their "What are they trying to hide" argument.  Their straw dog follow ups, playing imaginary 'what if' games is winning public sentiment.  In an era when real science is becoming increasingly under attack by voodoo science and professional fear-mongering, maybe the correct course of action is transparency?  Just label it and be done with it.

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Ohio  |  May, 10, 2014 at 09:11 AM

Maybe what is called for here is a Universal Disclaimer Label. Such a disclaimer might read: "Warning this is Food! It may contains chemicals and compounds both natural and unnatural, It may have been produced by means both natural and unnatural or both, The use of this product may cause or contribute to: disease, discomfort, paranoia, weight gain or loss, sexual dysfunction, psychological manifestations of all types, and guaranteed eventual death. Use this product at your own risk. For more information go to

May, 10, 2014 at 11:08 AM

Chuck, you don't disclose whether you are right or left handed. I have the right to know this, of course. I find it the case that left handed people nauseate me and some are criminals. I believe lives would be saved if we legally required everyone to disclose. Right handed people and ambidextrous people are also sometimes dangerous. I do not understand how anyone can be ambidextrous so that frightens me terribly and so certainly those are the most dangerous of all. Also, I doubt right handed people can do a satisfactory job of hating and bashing Big Ag & Big Food. Their propaganda might be watered down. I have the right to know this Chuck. I demand my right to choose. If I break out in hives over this it will be your fault.

Bassett ne  |  May, 11, 2014 at 07:13 AM

The real science that's under attack is the immediate reality of climate change.

NE  |  May, 11, 2014 at 07:11 PM

I do not understand the venom aimed at those who want to know what they put in their mouth. Is it not time for a sane open discussion of the subject? NOT your name calling and labeling of those who disagree with you. My one consolation is that companies are voluntarily labeling their products. My question for you is, What if the "foodies" are right? What if these odd concoctions of dna really do hurt us? Then what? By the way I am a cattle raiser, involved in agriculture.

Kansas  |  May, 12, 2014 at 09:24 AM

Let me start by saying Sam's note is perfect. Maye that label should be writ large and placed over the entrance of any establishment that sells food for human consumption. Brandi, I am right-handed but type with both. Research indicates that left-handed people like my son tend to be more creative, artistic types. Ambidextrous people like my sister just can't make up their minds. Anonymous,please stay on the subject. I'll write about climate change later. And jubee, this is an opinion piece. Venom? Name-calling and labeling? Please. I used this forum to point out the hypocrisy behind some very ineffectual proposed laws. My question back to you, what if the "foodies" are wrong and will be lumped in with the Luddites of history? Now there is some name-calling.

Kentucky  |  May, 12, 2014 at 11:27 AM

Funnee, funnee, Chuck! I suspect you're ambidextrous, given your swaying from left to right over many columns.... The subject is not climate change, true, so I look forward to NO venom from you when you address that issue. As for this being an opinion piece, again true, though as a distinguished journalist are you not supposed to try to be "balanced"? And let's face it, how many people really know the history of the Luddites? They are only failures with the hindsight we have now - at the time they were part of the bigger debate, if a little violent and short-sighted. On the other hand, I'd rather be labeled a Luddite than have my health or the environment damaged by (still) unproved science - ever heard of DDT?

western Canada  |  May, 12, 2014 at 12:36 PM

I think Sam's note is great too - - - - but I think there has been a lot of very bad science that has been used to justify a lot of things. Knowing the incredible amounts of money that are at stake makes me wonder as to the absolute veracity of ALL the claims made for GMOs. When trillions are involved the 'little people' (and that includes Phd's) take orders!! Has anyone calculated the costs caused by herbicide resistant plants yet?

97141  |  May, 12, 2014 at 08:41 PM

Monsanto has 8 members on the USDA and supreme court moonlighting for them...All organic farmers have more hoops to go jump as they need to make sure Everything they give their animals is organic so they can sell their organic is the law..remember? As a 50 plus year dairy farmer, health activist, mother, consumer, voter..I know more than you...your article needs more research before you write your opinion....seriously.

MO.  |  May, 13, 2014 at 09:30 AM

Please recheck your facts pertaining to Organics. Not creating a war and just labeling everything correctly makes sense --- no free passes included!

Kansas  |  May, 13, 2014 at 09:36 AM

Now, Loretta, how do you know you know more than me? That seems to be a self-congratulatory statement. Your comment "Your article needs more research before you write your opinion...seriously" doesn't make sense mainly because I don't think you read my OPINION piece all the way through. My concluding statement was "In an era when real science is becoming increasingly under attack by voodoo science and professional fear-mongering, maybe the correct course of action is transparency? Just label it and be done with it." And a word to Robert: Science is neither left nor right, even though many people try to push it into the political spectrum, it is not a political issue. And, as an editorialist, I reserve the right to write what I wish without donning a political strait jacket.

ID  |  May, 13, 2014 at 09:44 AM

I am certain starvation and malnutrition still kill more people than GMO food, or food not marketed with an organic or natural label. The issue is how to feed an exponentially growing population with diminishing natural resources.

Iowa  |  May, 13, 2014 at 01:07 PM

Have you ever heard of DDT? My father and most GIs returning from the Pacific after WWII were dusted with DDT to get rid of vermin. As a result almost all of them have died.

Kentucky  |  May, 14, 2014 at 10:40 AM

PJ: Check the science over the long term before making such a flippant statement.

Kentucky  |  May, 14, 2014 at 10:46 AM

Chuck: I can't agree with you more about science not being left or right, though I would caution that it's not just "many people" who push it politically, but largely politicians themselves, esp. the deniers. As for your right not to don a "political strait jacket", balanced reporting is hardly that, which you know perfectly well. After all, "many people" are influenced by your opinions, but as a journalist I know you want to get to the "truth" or "facts" as closely as possible. Or at least I hope that's the case....

Kansas  |  May, 15, 2014 at 09:50 AM

Robert, one of the real pleasures of being a contributor to Cattlenetwork is I get to report straight news as well opinion pieces. Not many journalists have that privilege. Although I understand the wall that should separate the two, sometimes I trip over it. In every case, though, I try hard to honor that necessary separation.

Vermont  |  May, 15, 2014 at 09:03 PM

Chuck: Couldn't agree more. Label it, move on with life. This really is such a non-issue and there are much more important ones to tackle. Besides, I sense the tide is turning in regards to even more liberal media outlets letting up on GMO bashing if not all together promoting them. While I think mandatory labeling is not necessary, there are lots of things we do and certainly the government does that's not necessary. Next, please.

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