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Scientists challenge value of Vermont’s new GMO labeling law

Several internationally prominent scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, are calling Vermont’s new GMO-labeling law unscientific and unwarranted. But supporters say the public has a right to know if food has been genetically engineered.

“The problem is that putting a label on something doesn’t tell anybody what’s in their food. Genetic modification is a process,” said Nina Fedoroff, a National Medal of Science winner, emeritus professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University and author of “Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.”

“And so the real central question is whether any of the modifications have any impact on food quality or nutrition. And the answer is no. Essentially, both of the modifications in wide use today have no impact on health. They add a tiny amount of protein to the thousands of proteins that are already in plants, and your body treats those proteins exactly the same as it treats any other protein.”

The law, which took effect July 1, requires labels on foods that are “produced with genetic engineering” and forbids those food labels from using the word “natural or any words of similar import.” Producers have until the end of the year to comply before their products will be pulled from store shelves.

The statute defines genetic engineering as modifying genes “in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.” Labels are not required for “a change of genetic material through the application of traditional breeding techniques, conjugation, fermentation, traditional hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.”

Martin Chalfie, professor of biological sciences at Columbia University and 2008 Nobel laureate in chemistry, said there is no scientific basis for such a distinction. The end result is the same: a genetically altered plant.

In fact, genetic engineering in a lab is generally safer than traditional breeding methods because it allows for greater control and more precision, he said. “What does it actually mean to use the term ‘genetically modified organism’ since everything we have eaten is genetically modified in one way or the other?” Chalfie asked.

In May, the National Academy of Sciences released a multiyear study that found “no substantiated evidence” of GMOs posing a risk to human health. Citing that study and others, Sir Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs and the 1993 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, said the science is settled on GMO safety. But labeling laws make people believe there is a risk to eating food that has genetically modified ingredients.

“The problem with labeling is that it does not convey any useful information; yet,at the same time scares the public,” he said. “This of course is exactly what the organic farmers and others want. In this way not only will the price of the GMO products have to go up to pay for the testing, but the marginal difference in cost will be less. Consequently, the price difference combined with the scare factor will be good for the organic farming industry, they think.”

Maddie Monty, policy adviser at Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, which pushed for the labeling law, called that “a really insane argument and a really debunkable one.”

Before the labeling law, an organic label was the only one that signified a food was free of GMOs, Monty said. But when non-organic foods carry a non-GMO label, sales of organic products could suffer, she said.

The point of the law, according to the state, is to inform consumers.

“Our point is a simple one: Label your food and give consumers the information they are demanding. Companies label for a variety of things — nutrition, marketing, etc,” Scott Coriell, a spokesman for Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, said in an email. “Over 60 countries require the labeling of GMOs. This shouldn’t be difficult. It's beyond belief that the food industry is fighting so hard to deny consumers this right.”

Fedoroff said the transparency question obscures the substance of the issue. “The net result is that genetic modification is positive. Why are we continuing to vilify this technology?”

The governor’s office did not dispute that GMOs are safe for human consumption.   “We've never said anything about the health of GMOs,” Coriell said. “Our argument has always been for transparency. If there is nothing to hide, then stop spending tens of millions of dollars to avoid giving consumers the right to know what is in their food.”

Fedoroff, who tried three years ago to raise public awareness about the safety of GMOs and said she got nowhere, expressed doubt that public sentiment would change even with prominent scientists becoming more vocal. “This whole thing is totally, painfully absurd.”