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The states of Vermont and California have made major strides in defending consumers’ right to know about the presence of genetically modified (GM) content in their food and the toxicity of agrochemicals. But industry wants to punish them for it.
Vermont’s state legislature passed a bill that would require GM foods sold in the state to be labeled as such. The bill, known as Act 120, signed by governor Peter Shumlin in 2014, will go into effect on July 1. And in California, the state government intends to identify Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide as a carcinogen, after concerns about the glyphosate-based agrochemical were raised by the World Health Organization.
Industry reaction to these state-level initiatives has been harsh and vindictive. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the nation’s largest trade lobbies, filed suit against the state of Vermont, alleging that Act 120 is costly, misguided, unenforceable, lacks basis in health, safety and science, and runs afoul of the First Amendment and interstate commerce protections.
And California is being sued by Monsanto, which alleges that its Roundup is not a cancer risk to humans and that the WHO assessment is “inconsistent with the findings of regulatory bodies in the United States and around the world.”
The corporate arguments are absurd. Sixty-four countries worldwide label GM foods, without causing their food systems to collapse or food prices to significantly rise. Polls consistently show that the majority of American consumers want GM foods labeled.
And if GM foods are safe, as the industry claims, then why the stubborn opposition to this labeling? The biotech corporations have never given an adequate answer to this question.
Apart from the scientific debate over whether GM foods or herbicides are perilous to human health, these corporate lawsuits are cause for deep concern. How can state governments legislate and regulate if they are under constant threat of major corporations and trade associations suing them whenever they do not like what they see?
These lawsuits form part of a larger picture of corporations all over North America taking legal action against consumer and environmental protections, using trade agreements as platforms. In January, TransCanada sued the U.S. government, alleging that it violated the NAFTA trade agreement by blocking construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
And it bears asking: Will this trend get worse with the approval of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, the mother of all trade agreements?
That would be a good question for citizens and journalists to ask the candidates now vying for votes on the presidential campaign trail.
Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author and journalist. He is a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. His Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.