By Maren Tarro
— Lobbying groups for agriculture and food companies have spared no expense in their campaign to convince consumers that not only are GMOs safe, they are necessary to ensure adequate food production for a growing population. This matters here at home, they say, and in drought-stricken, impoverished nations.
It’s the “starving children in Africa” argument on steroids: If you don’t eat your genetically-modified, herbicide-doused corn then you are personally responsible for millions of hungry, dead babies. It’s a brilliant strategy. But it may not be their only one.
A measure that sought to require the labeling of genetically modified foods in New Mexico died on Jan. 31. SB 18 was shuffled from the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate Public Affairs Committee, its final resting place. Following the failure of California’s Prop 37, this news was less than shocking.
Two weeks before the New Mexico bill’s final gasps for air, several food companies— Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and General Mills—attended a meeting with U.S. Food and Drug Administration reps to lobby for a mandatory GMO-labeling law at the federal level. Did Big Food have a “come to Jesus” moment and suddenly realize that, by golly, consumers do have a right to know exactly what they’re shoving into their food-holes? Probably not.
What’s more likely is they concluded that fighting labeling laws state-by-state will be expensive, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to defeat every measure put forth. If one state is able to get a labeling law on the books, other states will eventually follow. For Big Food, it makes more sense to influence the rules than let individual states decide how to handle GMOs.
Three other states, Washington, Vermont and Missouri, have labeling legislation pending. Should the Washington bill make it onto a ballot, chances are good it will be passed—these are the voters that said yes to same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana.
The Missouri legislation is also promising, as its target is only fish and meat produced within the state. The narrow scope of the bill may prove to be the baby step in the right direction for Missouri lawmakers.
Similar laws regarding genetically modified salmon already exist in Alaska and Washington. Vermont’s bill looks to be on shaky ground, with lawmakers spooked by the possibility of lawsuits. In 1996, Vermont’s law requiring labeling of products containing rBST, a growth hormone, was struck down as a First Amendment violation.
While anti-GMO activists and GMO proponents have their eyes trained on those states, New Mexicans need to pressure lawmakers to revive the issue. Voters can carry as much, if not more, weight as lobbyists and corporate interests. If the move by Big Food to request regulation tells us anything, it’s that consumers are being heard. The challenge now is to make sure consumers are shaping the regulations, not industry.
Learn how to make the argument with my handy guide to arguing for GMO labeling.