Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If You Want It

[David] Zuckerman and Nevitt have been very vocal in support of a GMO labeling law introduced this session in the Vermont legislature. It didn't pass. And Rachel Nevitt is:

    Nevitt: Furious. I'm furious because it's an issue that's really important to a lot of people; we've made that really clear. We have a right to know what's in our food. Period.

Four separate polls found more than 90 percent of Vermonters support labeling food made with genetically modified seeds. So why wouldn't such a feel-good law pass?

    Chuck Ross: Um, the problem is that we're quite confident that we would be sued right out of the blocks.

Chuck Ross is the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture. He says lawmakers worried about the reaction from Monsanto and other large multinationals. But close to 20 other states are still considering GMO labeling.

    Ross: But they run the same risk that the state of Vermont does in it being a suit. And that's a costly proposition to engage in. This is an issue that would be best dealt with by Congress with a national standard.
States consider labeling GMO foods
But if 90% of Vermonters really want modified foods to come with some sort of Genetically Modified Organism labeling on them, they have a simple option. Don't buy anything that isn't labelled. You can rest assured that, even though Vermont isn't the largest food market in the United States, that food producers will rush to get labels on to their products. And then what's Monsanto going to do? Sue 90% of the state? Not bloody likely.

It's clear, from the fact that officials expect a lawsuit the moment a labeling law goes into effect, that Monsanto expects that sales of GMO foods will drop. Non-GMO will become a competitive advantage that they're not positioned to take advantage of. This gives the people of Vermont, whether they know it or not, leverage. And it's leverage that they can, and should, put to use.

While on the surface, there's nothing wrong with a GMO labeling law, it strikes me as unnecessary, as the people of Vermont have it within their power to make their state unfriendly to unlabeled foods. There might be an issue with dishonesty among producers and suppliers, but there are ways around that. Fraud, and deliberately mislabeling foods would certainly qualify, is already against the law. And if you cut whistle-blowers in for a piece of the take and maybe throw in some other considerations, someone should be willing to step up when people turn to deceit. (And we know someone will.)

We have to be careful about expanding government to give them powers to do things that we wish for, but don't want badly enough to put effort into. Government should be geared towards those things that we can't do effectively for ourselves, not things that we don't want to do. For one thing, our society becomes more amenable to small groups that have different ideas. Labeling foods and GMO or not can't be both mandated and not at the same time. But if those people for whom it's important make their buying decisions based on labels, someone will put labels on foods, and the people who don't really care can still buy unlabeled foods if they want. (Now, it should be pointed out that for people who don't care, the labels don't do any harm - not all situations are like this, and that should be kept in mind.)

We've become accustomed to turning to government, but sometimes, that's not the best answer. Not all situations are going to be like this one, where modest effort on the part of a broad group of people will quickly lead to the changes that they'd like to see. But some are, and it would be worthwhile to explore other avenues of getting things done than looking for legislation.

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