by Steve Wagner
Changing Food Trends was the theme of the 137th PennAg Annual Meeting and it asked the question on the front page of the program “do consumers drive the agricultural marketplace?” Penn State’s Ross Pifer was one of the answerers. Pifer, who is with the Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center’s Rural Economic Development Clinic, pointed out many of the ifs, ands or buts with regard to how various states are handling some of the thornier issues. Pifer is specifically addressing mandatory GMO labeling. Fifteen years ago, the New York Times ran an op-art illustration of what the supermarket offering of GMO foods might look like in the future. Among the items were odorless fish ($5.99/lb.), rectangular zucchini (for easier cooking on the grill), and Viagra peas for 99 cents. (Don’t ask.) But since public perceptions of GMOs still runs against them, largely mountains of superstition and misinformation, Pifer focused on a specific argument using tomatoes as an example, and also how some states are managing labeling of GMO products, and also with legal developments.
The first genetically modified food product on the market was a tomato, the Flavr Savr Tomato. It had been approved by FDA in the mid-1990s. Its purpose, why it was genetically modified, was to have a longer shelf life in order to save the flavor. How did this work? First of all, it was not going to soften during ripening. The tomato would be allowed to ripen on the vine, have more flavor, wouldn’t break down as quickly so it would ship more easily, and would last longer. At any rate, that was how it was supposed to play out. What role did reality play in the outcome? “There was consumer interest,” Pifer said. “It was introduced on a limited scale. Stores reported that they sold like proverbial hotcakes. Some stores even had a limit on how many you could actually buy. But consumers ultimately weren’t willing to pay enough of a premium. There were high costs of production they were relying on, a dramatic increase in sales, to make that production more efficient. And the flavor they were trying to save maybe wasn’t that great.” There were also bruising problems. Calgene, the developer, was eventually bought out by Monsanto and the product was phased out. It was not the customer who made this product go away. Consumers were receptive to the idea of a product that was supposed to be better. This product failed for other reasons.
There are three generations of GMOs. The First Generation has what are called Enhanced Input Traits – elementary base line things like herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, and drought resistance. Second Generation has Enhanced Output Traits – increased nutritional properties and ‘golden rice’…and the Flavr Savr tomato. Third Generation have traits beyond the traditional food and fiber such as pharmaceutical products.
Shifting to mandatory labeling we find that most legal developments are being generated at the state level. Minimal activity has occurred at the federal level. Going back to Nov. 5, 2002, voters defeated Oregon Measure #27 by a margin of 70-to-30 percent. This would have required a plainly visible label containing the words ‘genetically engineered.’ Perhaps it was semantically too blunt. The next attention getter was a full decade later in the Nov. 6, 2012 general election. California Proposition 37 on Mandatory Labeling saw arguments for and against. The California proposition also failed but by an extraordinarily slender margin, 51.41 percent to 48.59 percent. Such a narrow margin did nothing to make the issue go away. Washington state’s results were nearly equally narrow, the ‘no’ vote winning by about 3 percent. Oregon’s 2014 ballot initiatives had the ‘no’s triumphing by about 1 percent, or by 700 – 800 votes. Statewide! New England states, however, favored legislation over the ballot box in trying to achieve their goals. Connecticut was the first state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling statute. But “Connecticut is not going this alone,” says Pifer. “They are going to wait until they have some company, other states that have passed similar laws. The population of those states has to exceed 20 million.” That aggregate northeast population is nine states. The population of six New England states that have such legislation totals about 16 million. What this means is that New York and/or Pennsylvania are going to have to pass mandatory GMO legislation before Connecticut’s statute would be effective. Legislation passed by Maine becomes effective when five contiguous states, including Maine, enact their own labeling laws. And because Maine is bordered only by New Hampshire, then New Hampshire and three other states have to pass laws.
Legislation passed by Vermont is noteworthy because it hasn’t any trigger mechanism like Maine and Connecticut. It does not require that any other state take action but rather is effective on its own. This enactment becomes effective on July 1, 2016. Also, with the respective states specifically addressing GMO legislation requirements comes some federal head-butting. Though the feds have done little with GMO labeling, they do have regular labeling regulations, and issues are being raised in that regard. At any rate, potential litigation could drag on for several years.