Vermont is poised to become the first state to require food products with genetically engineered ingredients to carry labeling. Is the Green Mountain state the first domino to fall?

I don’t want to sound like some smug parent when their kid — against all manner of advice — goes ahead and does something totally dumb that results in disaster.

But I told you so.

Commentary:  Laying down the labeling lawAs Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin anticipates signing the country’s first bill requiring mandatory labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients, it’s being viewed by many as merely the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Connecticut and Maine enacted legislation last year with “trigger clauses” that require implementation of those two states’ own mandatory GMO labeling rules at a point when more states enact labeling requirements of their own.

“Vermont has fundamentally changed the landscape,” Dave Murphy (no relation), founder of the Iowa-based activist group Food Democracy Now, told The Washington Post. (Murphy likes to point out that he’s been called “The most crucial and politically savvy actor in the ongoing efforts to help move American agriculture into the 21st century” — I guess the 21st century doesn’t include biotechnology).

H. 112, Vermont’s GMO labeling bill, was pushed through the legislature by Vermont Right to Know GMOs, a coalition that included groups such as Rural Vermont, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Cedar Circle Farm (an organic grower and marketer), along with a number of private-sector businesses and non-profits. Obviously, most of those groups stand to profit if consumers are encouraged to avoid “mainstream,” conventional food products because they now labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients.

So I’m less than swayed by all the cheering from activists over “the public has won the right to know what’s in our food!” rhetoric, since what excites members of Vermont Right to Know GMOs isn’t necessarily principles as much as profits.

But back to the iceberg analogy: Even as organic marketers get set to celebrate in Vermont — current reports have Shumlin set to sign the bill soon — anti-GMO activists elsewhere are pressuring legislatures in more than 20 states to introduce bills similar to H. 112, and various advocacy groups will continue to push ballot measures forward in three more states this election cycle.

Other states with GMO labeling bills currently pending include Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and California. The ambitions of the biotech haters are only going to be inflamed even more by their success in Vermont.

And according to The Washington Post, when Gov. Shumlin signs the bill into law, the state expects to be sued over it and is ready to fight back. “Legislators, officials and advocates are preparing for it,” the newspaper reported.

Back in April, Vermont state Attorney General Bill Sorrell told Vermont Public Radio he would be “very surprised” if the state isn’t sued when the bill becomes law. In fact, the Post reported that legislators were so convinced there would be a legal challenge that the bill’s language included a $1.5 million legal defense fund, to be paid for with settlements won by the state.

The push for GMO labeling is only going to escalate going forward.

A tenuous tactic

If you’ve skimmed even a couple weeks’ worth of commentaries in this space, you’ve probably read (or maybe deliberately skipped) a column of mine shilling for industry to initiate voluntary GE labeling. I’m all for publishing scientific papers “proving” that genetic engineering of seeds doesn’t endanger public health, and I strongly disagree with the seemingly ubiquitous organic marketing strategies that demonize conventional producers on the basis of their use of GE crops or feed ingredients.

But at the end of the day, hardly anyone is going to be convinced that GMOs are safe and can be consumed without any worries on the basis of some scientific study or a magazine article or even a marketing campaign complete with high-powered ads. That tactic worked in California and Washington when voters in those states rejected ballot measures that would have mandated GMO labeling, but that was because the vote was turned into a pocketbook issue.

Nobody likes voting for anything that’s going to cost them more money. Tapping that resistance may well be enough to continue defeating statewide referenda, but it won’t change people’s belief that genetic engineering is an ill-advised technology and that foods made with ingredients from GE crops are ultimately suspect in terms of their effects on human health.

Unless industry wins the battle over GMO safety, it will find itself endlessly fighting a rear guard action from a defensive posture.

That’s no way to run a railroad. Or a ranch or a food processing business.

Nor can industry and its scientific supporters make a credible case for the safety of genetically engineered foods if at the same time its leadership is fighting on all fronts to prevent mandatory labeling on food packaging. I understand the rationale that labeling is only mandated for safety or nutritional reasons, and GMOs involve neither issue.

But that argument doesn’t trump the reality of an entire industry marching in lockstep to prevent what millions of people believe to be a commonsense way to satisfy the public’s need to know.

The only way to put the controversy over GMOs to rest is creating labeling that delivers the information in context, in a positive way — and is done voluntarily, without having been forced to do so by a majority of elected officials or the voters who put them in office.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.