Wyomingites are wise enough to decide whether they want to eat genetically modified foods says guest columnist Theresa Shaw. Congress shouldn't deny them the information they need to make those decisions. (Flickr Creative Commons photo by Chiots Run)

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. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Shaw)

— Theresa Shaw owns a small-scale farm with her husband in Sheridan County.

Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

(Flickr Creative Commons photo by Chiots Run)

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  1. The fears over gmo is scientifically unfounded and is driven by those with no idea how genetics work. There are 20 amino acids that are the basic building blocks of life and is what our dna is made of. They have been around for billions of years. Chemically there is no difference between a turnip or a monkey. Only how the dna is arranged and complexity.

  2. First, I am an advocate for an individual’s right to know not only what constitutes the food we eat but also where it originates. The real problem with GMOs is the push by corporations to hide their use in our food supply because they fear we will choose not to purchase that particular item. It makes me suspicious. They should play on a level playing field, fess up to the use of GMOs and get on with it. We can then choose yea or nay. They obviously think they will lose the play and want to fix the game.

    Secondly, I am quite sure that I want to retain our State’s ability to legislate on this subject. Why should we give up local control to the federal government? We all know the power of corporations in Washington and how money impacts policy. Is the money game coming home? Is there a deal being made to keep us in the dark?

    Lastly. regarding Mr. Kniss’s belief that there is a consensus on the safety of GMO’s. I do not find that to be the case. If you would like to read a rebuttal on the statements of Mr. Kniss click here http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org and follow the lead to GMOs. It is a very detailed discussion of the many disagreements on the safety of GMOs and the studies that have resulted in different conclusions than those cited by Mr. Kniss.

    Carol LeResche

  3. I’m not strongly in favor or against the labeling of GMO ingredients in foods. However, I feel compelled to respond to a couple points in this opinion piece. It was stated that GMO safety is “a subject that is hotly contested by scientists who are experts in the field.” This is not accurate. The safety of genetically engineered foods is actually not contested at all by scientists who are experts in the field. A recent Pew poll showed that 88% of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) members considered GMO foods safe to eat. That is a greater percentage than AAAS members who say that climate change is due to human activity (87%). Scientific and medical organizations who agree with the safety of GMO foods include the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, an even the French Academy of Science. The French and Americans don’t agree on many things, but on the safety of GMO foods, they are united. It would be difficult to find a topic on which scientists are more united than the safety of GMO food. Within the scientific community, the consensus on safety of GMO food is about as well-established as those on evolution, climate change, and vaccine safety.

    The opinion piece also states: “In other words, the GMO process that citizens are concerned about … cannot be conducted by your average farmer out in the field.” While this is true, it is also true of almost any modern crop breeding technique. There are quite a number of ‘conventional’ breeding technologies that could not be conducted by an average farmer. About 75% of the grapefruit grown in Texas, for example, were developed by radiation mutation breeding. They were literally made by shooting high-energy gamma rays into the plants and selecting the mutated plants. They’re basically the plant version of The Incredible Hulk. Sounds scary, but it is nearly as safe as the technologies used to make GMO crops. There are many other breeding technologies not considered GMO that could not be done by anyone without a high-tech laboratory.

    Finally, with respect to the statement that “American consumers almost unanimously favor labeling genetically modified foods.” This is only partially true. When asked what kind of information consumers want to see on food labels, only 7% of Americans say they want to know about GMOs. Most people, like me, don’t seem to have a strong opinion either way on the topic of GMO food labeling. But if you ask directly whether they want GMO foods labeled, many more people say yes. Prompted questions like these can be misleading. When asked in this manner, consumers tend to say yes to just about everything. A recent poll conducted by faculty at Oklahoma State University found that 82% of people want GMOs labeled. In the same survey 80% of people responded they wanted mandatory labels on all foods containing DNA (which is any plant or animal based food). The number of people wanting a GMO label does not sound quite as impressive in that context.

    Andrew Kniss