Photography by Toby Talbot, AP
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Protesters like these in Vermont may have won a partial victory: The state passed a mandatory GMO labeling law and now USDA is considering allowing a voluntary GMO-free label.
Photography by Toby Talbot, AP
The Plate

Food Debate Shifts As U.S. Considers ‘GMO-Free’ Label

Just call Vermont the mouse that roared. The state’s mandatory GMO food-labeling law, designed to serve its tiny population of 625,000, probably just changed eating for 320 million Americans.

Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that it is, after years of debate, considering an official voluntary “GMO-Free” label for food. To some, the national suggestion of a voluntary label is squishy and without teeth, when compared with Vermont’s mandatory law for labeling anything containing GMOs (which is roughly 80 percent of our food supply). That’s an important discussion.

But equally important is the question why, after years of debate and activists demanding government labeling, would the government act now? According to a May 1 letter from USDA head Tom Vilsak obtained by the Associated Press, a “leading global company” requested a voluntary GMO-Free government labeling process. (My guess on the company’s identity: General Mills, which last year announced that it was moving to GMO-free Cheerios and other cereals.)

Consider also that on April 27, just four days before the USDA letter was written, a U.S. court ruled that Vermont’s law requiring labeling for foods containing GMOs would not be delayed past its July 2016 implementation date while the court considers the case. The food industry quickly appealed the decision for “harm to industry,” claiming that a July 2016 effective date would “disrupt food supply chains.” And the case will affect food sold outside of Vermont, too. Other states have passed or are considering labeling laws that go into effect when neighboring states have GMO labeling laws.

Companies just may be seeing the handwriting on the wall: Label or eventually be forced to be labeled.

A GMO is produced when the genetic material of one plant is forced into another plant, creating a new plant which has the desired traits of the two originals (pest resistance or heartiness, for example). But it is genetically something completely new that has never occurred in nature and humans have never eaten, even if it looks just like the wheat we ate 30 years ago.

Concerns are mounting that, because our bodies don’t know how to process these new foods, GMOs are responsible for many modern health maladies, like celiac disease and obesity. Science has yet to definitively pin any of these ill-effects on GMOs, but people are naturally worried. There is also vehement contention over corporations patenting and owning GMOs, and farmers becoming reliant on expensive seeds and pesticides, creating a cycle of dependence.

So it seems that Vermont has forced everyone’s hand. The good-food movement, like the anti-tobacco and single-sex-marriage movements before it, should consider shrinking D.C. offices and opening up 50 state offices for  its other pet issues. It seems that’s where change is most effective.

But national voluntary labeling might get non-GMO activists some of the things they want, eventually. Labeling in itself creates an entirely new set of questions. Most consumers won’t have in their minds that the labeling is voluntary when they are busy at the grocery store and just want to get home. They will assume that if a product on the shelf doesn’t say “GMO Free” then it has GMOs, in the same way that if a product doesn’t say “Organic” we assume that it is not organic.

When a product doesn’t have a label, though, all it really means is that a company or farm did not go through to the official certification process—often because it didn’t have enough money to pay government certification fees. For example, many farmers’ markets are swarming with products that would meet (and exceed) America’s Certified Organic standards but small local farms can’t afford the official labeling cost. When asked by customers if the food is Certified Organic, these small farmers have to answer “no,” and often lose a sale.

Certified GMO-Free may have a similar fee structure as Certified Organic, as GMO-Free would be run out of the same office, according to the letter. (All organics must be GMO-free, so it makes sense.) To be fair, companies should reimburse government costs because they are financially benefitting from the government’s work: Consumers will pay a ton for organics. The question is, just how much will they pay for the GMO-free label.

Organic food has become a $35 billion business since the USDA’s introduction of the official organic label in 2002. The GMO-Free label would probably become similar big business. And with corporations like Chipotle going GMO-free, Whole Foods promising to be entirely “Contains GMOs” labeled by 2018, and a USDA spokesman declaring that “other companies are lining up for this service,” the GMO-free gold rush may have just begun.