Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Monsanto is suing Vermont? Whaaaaat??

I've seen a whole bunch of articles about how the the "Mighty Monsanto" is taking the "tiny state of Vermont" to court over its labeling laws. To recap, back in April, Vermont passed a law mandating all foods to be labelled if they are made with genetically modified crops. The law is to take effect in July, 2016.

I promised the spouse that I wouldn't write another article about labeling because, as he so eloquently put it, "it's such a divisive topic that it won't be helping matters. Unless you write an article about how a label should be written". As Barney Stinson would say: Challenge accepted!

But this article isn't just about labeling. It's also about the law in Vermont and the fundraising campaigns to "help defeat Monsanto".

When Vermont's labeling law was enacted into action, there was a section entitled "Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Special Fund" (text of the law is here). If you read the text of this section in the law, they were expecting a lawsuit and many analysts stated that a lawsuit was almost inevitable. The Attorney General stated that "he had advised lawmakers as they deliberated that the law would invite a lawsuit from those affected 'and it would be a heck of a fight, but we would zealously defend the law'." In fact, this is not Vermont's first experience with a lawsuit surrounding food labels, so one may say that the fund was set up based on "lessons learned".

The lawsuit, whose full text can be found here, describes why the plaintiffs (i.e. the people who are suing) think that the law is illegal. IMHO, these are the two points that standout:
  • "The act is premised on a legislative finding that some consumers want to avoid food derived from genetic engineering because they distrust the FDA's findings or otherwise object to the use or prevalence of biotechnology in agriculture. The State does not purport to share those views, however, and it has exempted broad categories of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients from these requirements". 
    • i.e. The plantiffs are asking "why do I have to label my products, but they don't have to?" I agree here. Doesn't make sense why some categories are exempt if your argument is "right to know".
  • "The proscriptions in Act 120 are beyond Vermont's power to enact. The State is compelling manufacturers to convey messages they do not want to convey, and prohibiting manufacturers from describing their product in terms of their choosing, without anything close to a sufficient justification. The State is forcing the costs of this experiment on out-of-state companies and citizens to which it is not politically accountable, and it is undermining and impeding the federal government's interest in uniform, nationwide standards for food labeling prescribed by duly authorized expert federal agencies."
    • i.e. The law is in violation of the First Amendment by forcing a company to say something that it doesn't feel like saying. (I guess that means that when I was a kid and my brother used to sit on me until I said that he was awesome was also a violation of my First Amendment rights...). Additionally, the plaintiffs are stating that labeling is regulated at a federal level, and it doesn't make sense for a state to start its own labeling requirements at the expense of everyone else.
The FDA provides guidelines on food labeling, and their website does a good job describing the regulations that genetically modified foods are subject to and the evaluations that the crops undergo. Regarding the labeling of genetically modified foods, their website states that they support voluntary labeling of foods:
"We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering. Currently, food manufacturers may indicate through voluntary labeling whether foods have or have not been developed through genetic engineering, provided that such labeling is truthful and not misleading. FDA supports voluntary labeling that provides consumers with this information and has issued draft guidance to industry regarding such labeling."

So that's the outline of the lawsuit. Oh! One important point. Here are the plaintiffs:


What the...?? Where's Monsanto?? Every article I've seen in my Facebook feed and twitter feed is stating that Monsanto is suing Vermont? In fact, go ahead and google "Monsanto sues Vermont" and check out the gems you'll find.

Leading the charge behind "Monsanto sues Vermont" is SumOfUs.org, who is raising money to "defeat Monsanto". Here's the text of their fundraising campaign:

"Just hours ago, the world's most hated corporation got even more evil. Monsanto and its allies in the Grocery Manufacturers Association have just announced they're suing the tiny, rural U.S. state of Vermont to stop a new law that simply requires genetically engineered foods to be labeled. In fact, the mere threat of a multi-million dollar lawsuit nearly caused the state to back off the labeling law altogether.
But Vermont is refusing to back down -- and they’re asking for our help. They're getting ready to fight back against Monsanto, and have even created a legal defense fund so people around the world can make donations to help them beat back Monsanto’s lawsuit.
The SumOfUs community is already fighting Monsanto on every front, but we need to show Monsanto now that we won't be intimidated. We won't let Monsanto bully our elected officials into submission. Will you chip in to stand with Vermont and fight back against Monsanto?"
Hellz yeah!! Who wouldn't be frothing at the mouth after reading that??

Except that Monsanto isn't part of the lawsuit. 

I cannot find an unbiased source of information that states whether Monsanto is a member of one of the organizations in the lawsuit, but I think we can assume they are.(Update here). However, if they are, I don't think they'd spend a lot of money on this legal battle because it's not really Monsanto's fight. This lawsuit belongs to Kelloggs, Nestle, CocaCola, PepsiCo, and others, who don't really need help from Monsanto in this one. Because Monsanto makes bags of seeds, such as these, which are brightly labeled and meet regulations. They don't make the cans of soup or Betty Crocker cake mixes, which would be affected by this legislation.

So I wrote to SumOfUs.org to find out how the money would be spent. I wrote from my personal email account and got an answer four hours later. Here's the full text of their response: 

"Thank you so much for your email and your question regarding our recent email to support Vermont as it begins its legal battle against Monsanto and its allies. SumOfUs is committed to helping the State of Vermont fight back, and that's where your donation truly makes a difference. We do not have a breakdown at the moment. 

Staff from the Vermont governor's office reached out to us directly before we ran this fundraiser, and we're talking with them about how we can best support the campaign. We're planning to make a very significant contribution to the legal defense fund on behalf of our supporters, but if we have enough funds it might also be strategic for us to continue to campaign outside of the legal process to defend this law and undermine Monsanto's position -- in strong consultation with our partners. Vermont is very aware that they won't be the last fight over GMO labeling in the US or around the world, and that other states need support too. 

You can be confident that your gift will go towards fighting Monsanto and defending this law in Vermont, including through the legal defense fund. But if you'd rather donate directly to the fund exclusively, then you can do so here: http://www.foodfightfundvt.org/donate-online"

I wrote back to them and asked how this would be helping the "fight against Monsanto" if the company is not one of the plaintiffs. I have yet to receive a response, but if I do, I will update this accordingly. (I received a response several days later. It can be found here.)

So, my theory is that by putting Monsanto's name on this, it will help fuel their fundraising campaign. Because if I were to participate in a survey, and were to be asked, "What image comes to mind when you think of 'Grocery Manufacturers Association'?", I'd say "Mr Hooper from Sesame Street". No idea why, but it's probably the word "grocer" in the phrase that evokes that memory. I'd be willing to bet that for the average American, the amount of money that they'd donate for a campaign against "MonSantan" vs a campaign against "Snack Food Association", would be very different. Additionally, nearly every company that sponsors the NFL is affiliated with the Associations in the lawsuit, so I doubt that they'd raise even half as much money if they listed "Snickers", "Tostitos" or "Cheetos" in this fundraising campaign.

There you have it. I believe that you're being misled by this campaign. In the few hours that's it's taken me to write this, the fundraising campaign has gone from 19,000 individuals who have been misled to 21,000.

In reading about Monsanto and trying to understand what they do, my stance at this moment is that Monsanto is like any other corporation in the world: trying to make good products, trying to maintain customer loyalty, and like any other long standing corporation in the US, they also have made mistakes and are learning from them. I think in this particular instance, Monsanto has done nothing wrong and it's depressing that it's named has to be invoked in order to raise funds under a false statement. 

My final thoughts are about labeling itself. The strongest argument that I've read about labeling is "right to know" and "consumers want it". But I still don't get it. So I'm going to follow the spouse's recommendation and give you suggestions. What is it that you want to know? Because the information you desire will drive the labeling information. Here's a list that I can think of:

  • Wanting to avoid the trait/protein that has been added. If that's the case, then demand labeling for the protein that has been inserted. Additionally, it doesn't make sense to label things like corn starch or sugar, where there's no trace of the transgenic protein or DNA from the crop left behind.
  • Wanting to know the technology being used. If that's the case, then include a requirement to label foods developed through mutagenic entities such as radiation and mutating chemicals. Don't you have a right to know about those? Did you know that these can be labeled as "Organic"? Why do genetically engineered crops get singled out in this argument?
  • The concern about allergens or other health impacts. If that's the case, you still need to know what protein/trait has been added. A blanket statement saying that a food may contain genetically engineered materials is too vague.
  • Wanting to avoid pesticides/herbicides. If that's the case, then the producer should list the pesticides/herbicides used. That includes pesticides/herbicides used in organic farming.
  • A desire to avoid products made by Monsanto and other "Big Ag" companies. Monsanto produces non-GM seeds as well, so a label stating that a foods "may contain GE" won't help. 
  • Wanting to avoid GE in general. If this is your argument, then just buy organic foods. Because in the end, that's probably what's going to happen: there will be foods labelled as organic, and then there will be everything else. Because producers won't be able to guarantee that GE crops aren't part of the mix. Just take a look at this excellent depiction of all the items that will need to change in the supply chain to make such a guarantee. Even Ben and Jerry's who is striving to go GMO free cannot find a source of milk that is not fed GM grain. Chipotle has had to go to Australia to bring in beef that is not grain fed (I've hypothesized that Chipotle has created a beef-teleportation device, which is why the beef from Australia is local and sustainable). 
I've read several arguments about how this debate can be compared to a desire for Kosher labeling or Halal labeling: there's a group of individuals who want a product with specific information or their food prepared a certain way, and then there's everyone else. It makes no sense to demand that everything be labeled. I'm drinking Diet Coke as I write this and the can does not say "non-Kosher", because that would not make sense. I completely agree with this argument and think that voluntary labeling is the way to go, and most importantly, I should not have to bear the cost of labeling for something that has no scientific merit or health concern.

But, if you feel otherwise, feel free to contribute to SumOfUs.org's campaign to "bring down Monsanto". Just know that what you're really contributing towards is the legal fees (i.e paying for lawyers) due to a poorly designed piece of legislation whose legality was questionable from the get-go. As harsh as it sounds, I think that either the lawmakers or the citizens of Vermont should have to bear the burden of this one.

Note: If anyone has information on Monsanto's contribution to the Associations that are part of this lawsuit, please let me know and I'll update the post with the appropriate links. I've written to the GMA to find out more and will update accordingly.  (Information on Monsanto's membership in the GMA can be found here).

1 comment:

  1. "Staff from the Vermont governor's office reached out to us directly"? Oh, really? Can you imagine if a governor's office reached out to Monsanto for anything--especially money? The list of terms for that, and the outrage, would be remarkable.

    I have also seen MoveOn asking for Monsanto-VT money, and Organic Consumer's Association so far.

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