Thursday, June 6, 2013

I Wrote to My Senator about His Vote Against GMO Labeling. His Response Is Unconvincing.

Two weeks ago, the Senate voted on Bernie Sanders's GMO labeling amendment to the Farm Bill.  The Sanders amendment would have protected the rights of states "to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient."  In the battles about GMO labeling on the state level, GMO giants like Monsanto often argue that states do not have the authority to make such laws, only the FDA (which, of course, is ridden with Monsanto lobbyists) does.  For example, Monsanto recently threatened to sue the state of Vermont if the legislature passed the GMO labeling law under consideration. In what unfortunately came as no surprise, Sanders's amendment failed by a crushing 71 to 27 vote. Only 24 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 1 Republican voted YEA.  Although it might seem strange to see a Republican (any Republican) on that YEA list, Lisa Murkowski--along with her Democratic counterpart in Alaska, Mark Begich--has been a vocal critic of the FDA's approval of GE salmon and a strong supporter of labeling. Disappointingly, many otherwise progressive senators like Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, Al Franken, and Elizabeth Warren voted with Monsanto against consumers.  Perhaps the strangest "no" vote was that of Kirsten Gillibrand, who is currently a co-sponsor of the legislation proposed by Barbara Boxer to require the FDA to clearly label genetically engineered foods.

Canada and the United States stand out in the developed world for not having instituted GMO labeling requirements. The European Union, unsurprisingly, was the first to mandate labeling in 1998. Japan, Australia, and New Zealand followed suit three years later.  Since then, China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Venezuela, Taiwan, Russia, India, Chile, and South Africa have all imposed labeling requirements, albeit of various stricture.   Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg and Poland have banned Monsanto's MON810 maize and other forms of GMO cultivation.

After the vote, I called my senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, to complain about their vote.  (I had called in favor of the bill before as well.)  I likewise signed several petitions critical of their vote.  Earlier this week, I got a response from Bob Casey.  And needless to say, I'm not convinced.
I'll spare you the non-related parts of the form email and highlight the part in which he addresses the question of GMO labeling.
A number of Senators have introduced amendments to the 2013 Farm Bill related to genetically engineered ingredients or crops. At this point in time, the Senate has only voted on one such amendment. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced an amendment that would have permitted states to require that any food or beverage offered for sale have a label indicating that the item contains a genetically engineered ingredient.
Proponents of genetically modified crops argue that such advances help, among other things, to combat disease, increase annual yields, keep food prices in check and improve freshness and taste.
The claim that GMOs increase crop yield is debatable.  In a new report, funded by the USDA, University of Wisconsin researchers found that while some GM crops increased yields, others did not. They likewise found evidence of a "yield drag," i.e. "the idea that manipulating the genome of a plant variety causes unintended changes in the way it grows, causing it to be less productive." Moreover, the United Nations has produced numerous reports in the past few years debunking the claim that we need GM crops to feed present and future populations.  For instance, a 2008 report on food security in Africa argued that "organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage."

GM crops combat disease? Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, published an article in the peer-reviewed Environmental Sciences Europe that argued that Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology--which is used for corn and soy--drove up pesticide use by 527 million pounds, or about 11 percent, between 1996 (its inception) and 2011.  In 2011, farmers planting Roundup Ready seed were using 24% more herbicide than farmers planting non-GMO versions of the same crops; the constant spraying had led the rapid growth of superweeds resistant to Roundup, which thus required the application of more--and more toxic--herbicides.  Monsanto and Dow are planning to roll out new seeds that would be resistant to both Roundup and other herbicides, such as 2, 4-D (a component of Agent Orange).  The resulting increased application of 2, 4-D would not bode well; Benbrook explains, “Such a dramatic increase could pose heightened risk of birth defects and other reproductive problems, more severe impacts on aquatic ecosystems, and more frequent instances of off-target movement and damage to nearby crops and plants.”

Keeping food prices in check?  Well, you could do that without any potential health or environmental risks by capping commodity speculation, too.  And low food prices are not inherently a good thing.  Many European friends of mine have commented on how much cheaper meat is in the U.S. than back home---and how much worse in quality it is.  For instance, feeding cows grass, rather than mass-produced GM corn and soy as is done in the U.S., produces more nutrient-rich beef.
Tastes better?  Has Bob Casey done a taste test between GM corn and non-GM corn?  Until he does and gives me an answer, I won't buy the argument.  And, even if the GM food tasted better (hypothetically speaking), that would be no argument in GM favor from a policy perspective because it is not the role of the government to care about whether or not we like the taste of food; the government's responsibility only lies in promoting the safety, quality, and healthfulness of the food we produce and eat.

Regardless of these points, his talk about the benefits of GMOs is simply irrelevant.  The Sanders amendment would not ban genetically engineered food; it would simply protect the rights of states to require labeling.  The debate hinges less on the question of "Are GMOs safe?" than it does on the question of "Do consumers have a right to know what is in their food?" Since 1990, we've required all packaged foods to have nutritional labels. Those labels inform you of the amount of fat, sodium, carbohydrates (including sugars), protein, vitamins, minerals, etc., in your food and also inform you of the ingredients used in producing the food. We acknowledge a right of the consumer to know what is in his or her food; that implies no intrinsic value judgment on what is in the food.  We often see studies that make different health claims for fat, carbohydrates, and sodium; we read paeans and then warnings. However, we as consumers are given the right to information so that we can make the choices we deem fit.

I think a good comparison could be (perhaps surprisingly) the debate about the White House's drone/targeted killing policy.  Many critics argue for increased transparency and oversight without challenging the legality or even morality of the program because the debate over transparency and the debate over the legality (or morality) of the program are not the same. They center on different principles and rest on different premises.  We should support transparency over good programs, bad programs, and normatively ambiguous programs because a genuine democracy requires transparency.
At the same time, the significance of making genetic alterations to our food supply is a serious matter. Foods produced from this process should undergo rigorous safety inspections and other relevant scientific testing. I understand that some Pennsylvanians are concerned about consuming foods which have been genetically altered.
Notice how he acknowledges no arguments about the health or environmental risks of GM foods.  He notes that genetically altering food is a "serious matter" and such foods should undergo "rigorous safety inspections" and "relevant scientific testing."  But he fails to acknowledge any of the arguments for wariness about GMOs, such as new food allergies, increased toxicity, antibiotic resistance, decreased nutritional value, among others.  He also doesn't acknowledge that, in its hostility toward GMO labeling, the U.S. remains an anomaly in the industrialized world.
It is imperative that consumers have accurate information about the foods they buy for themselves and their families. However, I voted against Senator Sanders’ amendment because it would have preempted existing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling regulations, which I believe is the appropriate authority, and also would have hindered interstate commerce by creating a patchwork of state labeling requirements. The amendment failed to receive the votes necessary to pass.
New York City has banned trans fats and requires restaurants to post the calories of its menu items.  It did both in advance of the federal government.  Would Bob Casey not approve? 
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that a "state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."  We often remember that quote through the description of states as "laboratories of democracy."  We allow states to innovate, to pioneer new policies in programs in advance of the federal government. I see no reason why this should not apply to food labeling. States should not reduce the labeling suggested or required by the FDA, only expand it.

The market of your microeconomics textbook can only work under the condition of perfect information, which--as we all know--does not exist; the least that the supporters of the free market should do is to respect the consumer's (and citizen's) right to information.

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