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Editorial: What’s for Dinner? Good Question

At a recent rally in Montpelier, Cat Buxton, education coordinator at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, told the crowd that requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods was “simple, reasonable and prudent.”

Reasonable and prudent, yes. Simple? Not so much.

The focus of the rally was a bill known as H.112, which passed the Vermont House last year, the Vermont Senate’s Agriculture Committee on Friday and now is headed to the Judiciary Committee. Simply put, the bill would require food products that contain or were produced with genetically modified organisms, commonly known as GMOs, to be labeled as such. The bill exempts meat and dairy products. Certified organic food is by definition exempt.

Opponents of this bill and other GMO labeling proposals in at least two dozen states are waging well-financed public relations campaigns urging their defeat. In New Hampshire, a coalition of nearly 20 trade groups succeeded in killing New Hampshire’s GMO labeling bill last month on a 185-162 vote in the House. They argued that the costs of mandatory labeling, enforcement and inspection would be “crushing”; that dealing with a patchwork of state labeling regulations would be impossible; and that such labeling would imply that there is a health or safety issue with GMO foods.

Supporters of Vermont’s bill argue that the effects of GMOs on human health and the environment are incompletely understood, and they object to the influence of biotech companies and “junk food giants,” calling them “corporate bullies.”

Overheated rhetoric on both sides notwithstanding, the desire of consumers to know exactly what is in their food, and in the food they feed their children, is perfectly reasonable. And poll after poll taken in this country shows overwhelming public approval of labeling proposals; scores of countries around the world have adopted such rules.

Given this widespread support, one might call the desire for a GMO label “100 Percent Natural.”

Furthermore, food companies change their packaging all the time — New and Improved! Now With More This! Now With Less That! — so the argument that a labeling requirement would impose dramatic new costs, either on producers or consumers, fails to persuade.

We are not qualified to judge the science of genetic engineering. But we do know plant genes have been tinkered with since the dawn of agriculture and, 50 years ago, agricultural research and technology led to the so-called Green Revolution, which has been credited with saving millions, perhaps billions, from starvation.

And yes, we also know that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Medical Association and other groups have long said GMO foods are safe and cannot be distinguished from conventional foods.

Even so, notifying consumers that a food contains genetically modified ingredients or was produced using the techniques of genetic engineering seems prudent (as well as in keeping with the twin holy grails of modern American life — consumer choice and transparency).

But engineering a state law to that end won’t be simple.

That’s because industry groups and corporations are likely to sue. Any lawsuit likely would contend that a mandatory label would violate the food producers’ free speech rights as well as the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the authority “to regulate commerce … among the several states.”

Sound familiar? The same arguments were made in the 1990s, after Vermont became the first state to require labels on milk and other dairy products produced from cows that had been injected with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, which was designed to increase milk output and raised concerns about its effects on both humans and cows. Ultimately, industry groups succeeded in overturning the requirement in federal appeals court.

It may be that the state-level labeling efforts taking place across the country are merely the first steps toward a national GMO label law — which, if nothing else, would address the concerns of food producers about a patchwork of state laws.

Or maybe they’re not. In May, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would have allowed states to label GMOs. That measure failed, 71-27, with Sanders blaming “all of the major biotech and food corporations in the country” for opposing it.

Well, maybe not all.

One of the world’s largest food companies, General Mills, manufacturer of Betty Crocker, Green Giant, Pillsbury, Yoplait and dozens of other brands, announced last month that it is now producing one of its most iconic products — Cheerios — without GMOs. The familiar cereal also will carry a label saying “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients.” The company made the change, it said, because consumers demanded it.

In the end, that’s what businesses respond to.

It’s only natural.