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GMOs: The Scientific and Legal Debate

posted on Tue, Nov 10 2015 2:40 pm by Austin Roche

On July 27, 2015 the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, a bill that would prevent states from requiring GMO labeling on food products. If signed into law, the bill would invalidate a Vermont statute set to take effect in 2016, which would require food product manufacturers to label goods containing GMOs as “produced with genetic engineering.”

Vermont's statute has already resulted in a lawsuit filed against the state by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), and a subsequent appeal after the District Court ruled in the State's favor. The GMA claims the statute would “confuse consumers and lead to higher food costs,” as consumers’ health concerns over GMOs are not supported by evidence.

Opponents of GMOs claim that they negatively affect human health (citing increased chronic illnesses since GMOs were introduced), harm the environment, and do not increase crop yields. Yet, some studies show genetically modifying crops does increase yields by making the crops resistant to harsh environmental conditions, pests, and disease. The majority of researchers who have studied GMOs conclude that they do not impose any negative effects on human health. In fact, many scientists are baffled by the anti-GMO movement because evidence indicates that GMOs are safe, lower the price of food, and increase farmer safety and protect the environment by requiring less pesticide. A biomedical research group found the anti-GMO movement to be so unusual that it conducted a study on its psychological appeal. Interestingly, well-known scientist Bill Nye, who sided with some of the GMO criticisms in his book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, decided to revise his book after reviewing the opinions of the rest of the scientific community.

Despite the consistent finding of researchers, some supporters of the Vermont statute claim that there is no scientific consensus on the effects of GMOs, and that consumers have the right to know what goes into their food. The Grocery Manufacturers Association claims that Vermont's law will be costly to manufacturers and only serve to confuse consumers. Both sides of this debate claim that they have scientific studies to back up their claims, but at this point the weight of evidence seems to favor GMOs. The future of H.R. 1599 is unknown; it is currently waiting on a vote from the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. As a result, Vermont’s GMO legislation remains safe from federal challenges for now.

This blog was prepared by Austin Roche, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2017, University of Maryland Carey School of Law, under the supervision of Mathew Swinburne, Senior Staff Attorney for the Network’s Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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