Photo: GMO CompassIn a blog post on Forbes.com, Glenn Lammi, general counsel for the right-wing, pro-business think tank the Washington Legal Foundation, goes on the attack against Mark Bittman’s recent New York Times op-ed column calling for the labeling of genetically engineered food. Lammi, aside from indulging in ad hominem attacks mocking Bittman’s “modestly named iPhone/iPad application, How to Cook Everything,” not to mention “the foodie elites and Luddite activists” who oppose genetically engineered food, also indulged in just about every pro-GMO trope in the books.
Lammi extols the supposed virtues of genetically engineered food: how their safety is beyond question, how they increase agricultural productivity and lead to lower prices, etc. As Grist’s coverage has explained time and again, none of this is so clear cut. But my favorite bit had to be this:
Biotechnology allows crops to grow larger, faster, with fewer or no pesticides, and in otherwise intolerable climates.
Yes, well, that’s only true in Monsanto’s marketing materials. As of yet, despite much hype, we haven’t a GMO crop that can be grown in “otherwise intolerable climates.” The single element in that list with a grain of truth is the “fewer or no pesticides” argument — though with the rise of superweeds and superbugs, even that “quality” is under threat.
Lammi went on to claim that there is no legal basis for government-mandated GMO labeling. He maintains that legal precedent has established corporations’ right not to speak assuming there’s no compelling basis for requiring it. In other words, forcing companies to identify genetically engineered ingredients would violate their First Amendment rights!
Put aside the outrageousness of granting corporations individual rights. The Supreme Court has sadly supported that principle time and time again. What really stood out was the precedent Lammi cited: IDFA v. Amestoy — a 1996 case which struck down a Vermont law requiring mandatory labeling of milk treated with artificial growth hormones, aka rBST.
Talk about picking a losing argument! rBST is just as controversial (even more so in the public’s eyes) as GMOs. Further, rBST milk has utterly failed with consumers — despite the best efforts of industrial producers and Monsanto, the original marketer of rBST — 60 percent of milk is produced without it (and much of the milk that is, is processed into cheese and ice cream). Even a recent last ditch multi-state attempt by Monsanto to force Americans to drink treated milk by banning rBST labels failed. And in the course of that failure, a federal appeals court effectively undercut the very precedent Lammi cites. In doing so, the court may have offered a legal roadmap for GMO labels.
As I covered in detail at the time, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last October that rBST milk is indeed substantially different — in fact, unhealthier — than untreated milk, despite FDA assertions that there is no “compositional difference” between treated and untreated milk. It follows then that there is no free speech issue since consumers have a right to know about compositional differences between products.
While this does not speak directly to corporate free speech rights, it does show that the courts will step in when it perceives corporations or the government to be ignoring scientific evidence indicating risk. The current circle of love between biotech and the federal government is predicated on both of them rejecting any science that contradicts their vision of a genetically engineered (or hormonally treated) future. Thankfully, the courts refuse to drink that particular Kool-Aid — as we already know from the recent court battles over GMO alfalfa and sugar beets where the courts recognized scientific research that the FDA does not.
In reality, the labeling of genetically engineered food is a no-brainer. 87 percent of Americans want it. Europe has it — and the world has not ended. The fact that the best the pro-GMO set can muster are warmed over half-truths and outdated court cases should be a powerful indicator that these guys, though with all the power on their side, are simply on the wrong side of history. And perhaps, with writers like Mark Bittman introducing these issues to millions of people, we’ll start to see even that power shift.