Monsanto attacking democracy in Vermont
Monsanto’s lobbyists are out in force in Vermont, lobbying politicians in the hope of scuttling H.122, Vermont’s labeling law, which would require mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
They’re repeating ad nauseum their propaganda claims that GE foods and crops are perfectly safe and therefore need no labeling, that transgenics are environment- and climate-friendly, and that genetically modified crops are necessary to feed the world.
But as consumers become wiser, Monsanto has had to resort to attacking democracy instead of merely trying to defend its indefensible products.
One of Monsanto’s major propaganda points, designed to discourage state officials from passing GMO labeling laws, is that state GMO labeling is unconstitutional. Last year, the company threatened to sue the state of Vermont if lawmakers passed a GMO labeling law.
Biotech industry lawyers claim federal courts will strike down mandatory state GMO labeling for three reasons:
1) Because federal law, in this case FDA regulations, pre-empts state law.
2) Because commercial free speech allows corporations to remain silent on whether or not their products are genetically engineered.
3) Because GMO labeling would interfere with interstate commerce.
These claims simply don’t hold up. State GMO labeling, and other food safety and food labeling laws, are constitutional. Federal law, upheld for decades by federal court legal decisions, allows states to pass laws relating to food safety or food labels when the FDA has no prior regulations or prohibitions in place.
There is currently no federal law or FDA regulation on GMO labeling, except for a guidance statement on voluntary labeling, nor is there any federal prohibition on state GMO or other food safety labeling laws.
In fact, there are more than 200 state food labeling laws in effect right now in the U.S., including a GMO fish labeling law in Alaska, laws on labeling wild rice, maple syrup, dairy quality, kosher products, and laws on labeling dairy products as rBGH-free.
It is very unlikely that any federal court will want to make a sweeping ruling that would nullify 200 pre-existing state laws.
U.S. case law does indicate that commercial free speech in certain instances allows corporations to remain silent about what’s in their products. However, federal courts have consistently ruled that when there are compelling state interests — health, environment, economic — states can require corporations to divulge what’s in their products or how they were produced.
When it comes to GMOs, states can clearly make the case for compelling state interests, according to Consumer Union’s senior scientist, Michael Hansen. He says: “There is a compelling state interest in labeling of genetically engineered foods and that is due to the potential human health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered foods.”
Hansen also argues that Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety, guarantees nations the right to implement mandatory labeling of GMO foods. The standards support the argument that GMO labels do not constitute a restriction of free trade, as long as they are applied to both domestic and international producers.
Similarly state GMO labels, as long as they do not discriminate against particular producers, but rather apply to all producers — state, national, and international — do not constitute a restriction of interstate commerce.
The U.S. government, under massive global pressure, has signed on to the Codex Alimentarius, which serves “as a risk management measure to deal with the scientific uncertainty” associated with genetically engineered foods. And according to Hansen, there most certainly is significant scientific uncertainty about the potential health impacts of genetically engineered foods.
States and localities have the right and the power to pass their own legislation, especially when the federal government fails or refuses to act on matters of compelling interest. Although large corporations now control the federal government, we still have room to organize and govern ourselves, especially at the local level.
Vermonters are engaged in a fundamental battle, for the right to know what’s in our food, the right to choose what we buy and eat, and the right to regulate out-of-control corporations that are threatening our environment, our health and future climate stability.
Without bio-democracy there can be no democracy. Without a balance of powers between the federal government, states and local home rule, there is no republic, but rather a corporatocracy, an unholy alliance between indentured politicians and profit-at-any-cost corporations.
The battle for food sovereignty, beginning here in Vermont, is a battle we cannot afford to lose.
Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Katherine Paul is director of communications for the Organic Consumers Association.