by Theresa Shaw
(Opinion) — Last spring, the Joint Agriculture Committee passed a resolution calling on the federal government to limit the rights of states to pass policies that would label genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Calling GMO foods safe, the resolution takes away the rights of states, including Wyoming, to act in the best interest of their citizens. The committee’s bill will be up for debate in the legislative session starting Feb. 8 in Cheyenne, and I encourage legislators to think twice before endorsing such a sweeping statement on a subject that is hotly contested by scientists who are experts in the field.
A handful of states have responded to concerns about the safety of GMO foods by passing legislation requiring foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such. This would allow their citizens to make informed choices about the foods they were purchasing. In response to these laws, and under pressure from the large corporations that dominate our nation’s food system, the U.S. House passed a bill that bans states from passing GMO-labeling policies in their states. This bill was deceptively called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. Opponents of the bill have taken to calling it the DARK Act — Denying Americans the Right to Know.
And now our Wyoming legislators have weighed in on the issue, relying on faulty rhetoric and problematic logic. HJ 1, “Labeling for genetically engineered items” is sponsored by the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Interim Committee.
Supporters of the resolution claim that genetic modification has been going on “forever” and is so ingrained in our food system that there is nothing to worry about. However, Wyoming ag producers and consumers know better. Traditional plant selection and breeding, evolution and domestication, the “modifications” that have been going on “forever,” are not the same as the genetic engineering that has consumers concerned. Supporters of the resolution are playing bait-and-switch with the terminology.
The true definition of GMO is clearly spelled out in the National Organic Program’s regulations, which define the process as “a variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.” The insertion of genetic code from one organism into another completely different organism is what the term GMO specifically means. GMOs most often use non-plant genetic codes from insects and bacteria to produce plants that create their own pesticides or that are resistant to pesticides. According to these regulations, genetic modification does not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization or tissue culture. In other words, the GMO process that citizens are concerned about has not been going on “forever” and cannot be conducted by your average farmer out in the field.
But definitions aside, perhaps more problematic is that supporters of the resolution insult the ability of Wyomingites to make informed decisions. By denying consumers the right to know if their food contain genetically modified organisms, they are telling us we are not wise enough to determine whether we want to put something into our bodies. Instead, we need to trust Congress to make those decisions for us.
Finally, it seems that our elected officials are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. The same legislators who defend states’ rights and denounce government overreach from the EPA or other federal agencies are now for limiting states’ rights regarding GMO-labeling.
Supporters claim that they are “trying to avoid a patchwork of different state laws.” But they are forgetting there is a reason the 10th Amendment recognizes the regulatory and police powers of states and, in doing so, limits the powers of the federal government.
I’m sympathetic to how hard it is to make a living as a farmer. I am one, myself. But the first rule of any business is “the customer is always right,” and what the customer wants, is what the customer gets. American consumers almost unanimously favor labeling genetically modified foods. You don’t, or at least, shouldn’t, succeed by hiding what you really are from the customer. You may disagree with them, and that is your right. You may launch a PR campaign to convince them of the correctness of your position. But you may not hide the truth from them.
I am not going to try to convince you either way in regards to the safety of GMOs. Unlike our state representatives, I trust your intelligence and ability to look into the issue and make your own decision. I do encourage you to contact your representatives and demand your right, and the rights of citizens of other states, to be allowed the knowledge and ability to make one of the most fundamental decisions we have — what to eat.
— Theresa Shaw owns a small-scale farm with her husband in Sheridan County.
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