What is Food? GMO Labeling Remarks from Will Stevens

During the debate leading up to the historic vote that passed Vermont's GMO labeling bill out of the House, we heard statements from many representatives. At NOFA, we felt that one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking came from Will Stevens. Will is co-owner of Golden Russet Farm, a certified organic vegetable & greenhouse operation in Shoreham, VT, and is now in his 32nd year of commercial production. He has been a NOFA-VT member for about that long, and is a past President of VOF. He is currently in his fourth term serving as an Independent member of the VT House of Representatives, and is on the Agriculture  & Forest Products Committee. Will's remarks addressed well-debated scientific questions of GMO crops as well as a topic much less discussed: the spiritual and religious implications of genetic engineering. He asks,
"What is food? Is it something we stuff in our mouths to fuel our machine, or is it nourishment for our body and our mind?" Is this not the “People’s House?” Whose interests are we serving when we oppose the public’s right to know?
For those of you who did not have a chance to hear Will's testimony at the statehouse, he has graciously given us permission to reprint it here in full. It's long, for a blog post, but well worth the time. Please take a moment to read it, then let us know what you think! Do your spiritual or religious views affect your opinion on GMO labeling? I’d like to attempt to answer the question that has been asked on the floor multiple times: Why label if 80-85% of our food already contains GE?, and I’ll focus on two aspects of this: religion and science. Our job as policy makers is to weigh alternate truths: when we do our job well, we listen to as many sides of an issue as possible, from people who have opinions based on their life’s perspective. This can be challenging, especially when values are part of the consideration. To my mind, we listen to folks who are experts, who are willing to share their versions of truth with the policy makers. We, the policy makers, then have the task of deciding what version, or variation, of truth makes the most appropriate policy at any given point in time. In this case, we have explored a variety of state’s interests that have already been discussed – environmental, health, cultural, and personal concerns. One area we haven’t talked much about yet on the floor are the religious aspects of this issue. I found that religion provided me with my most confounding reaction to the testimony we heard in the six or so weeks we spent developing this bill: What are the religious aspects and implications of GE technology that labeling would address. We heard about social justice, or injustice when it came to reconciling the availability of information and food to those who care deeply about man’s role in a spiritual world. We heard about economic justice, about the ability of folks to make informed purchases. We heard fundamental existential and philosophical thoughts on a variety of core beliefs, some of which I’ll now share: Man, through science, has changed the rules of the game. What used to be God’s work is now performed in corporate labs, which raises existential concerns for people in a variety of religious faiths. We heard from Christian ministers and a Jewish rabbi who shared their personal thoughts, and the views of their congregations on faith, labeling, and GE. For those folks, scientific explanations fail to bring comfort, because of the new existential role man plays in their understanding of God as the Creator. What is food? Is it something we stuff in our mouths to fuel our machine, or is it nourishment for our body and our mind? For some, the act of eating is a sacred act, and prayer, or giving Thanks before a meal, sacrilizes the food. It allows us to be mindful, if only for a moment, of what we are about to put into our mouths. Prayer can remind us of what it takes to put food on the table, and it allows us to pause for a moment and give thanks for the wonder of life and the mysteries of creation. When we give grace for the food on our table, we are giving thanks to the presence of a higher being, not a corporation. The Rev. Daniel Buford, pastor of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California gave our committee a few thoughts to metaphorically chew on:
  • Life is not a commodity, to be created, marketed, and controlled by corporations.
  • Corporations are interested in profits, not in the health of the world, nor the future of “God’s species.”
  • Labeling will help members of his congregation align their beliefs with their personal practices, such as purchasing, diet, and health.
  • Finally, he said, “God created life, seeds, and fruit, and He declared it ‘good.’ That’s good enough for me!”
So, now we find ourselves talking about beliefs, and no doubt there are a number of devout believers who are perfectly comfortable with their understanding of science, creation, and faith. As policy makers, however, we are back to the matter of weighing alternate truths. This is not black and white, and it should not be “us and them.” This bill, as amended, is a step toward transparency, and is a policy choice that we consider to be an appropriate role of government. I haven’t yet heard why putting clear and accurate information on a box of cereal or a can of soup is going to harm individuals or the economy. In fact, people’s buying habits may not change one bit! Businesses will be free to promote the health and environmental benefits of GE technology (as they see them), instead of the current practice of fighting a label, which gives the perception of being in denial while appearing to hide something from consumers. As Rev. Buford stated, people will be economically empowered to vote with their pocketbooks since their ability to learn more about their food will be right there on the label. This should be seen as a positive trend! We took testimony that in Japan, barcode technology is used in such a way that shoppers can see the farms, the fields, the farmers, and the animals that were responsible for the products on the supermarket shelves. And oh, yes, they apparently also require that GE information is available on the scanned websites. Is this a bad thing? Is this not the “People’s House?” Whose interests are we serving when we oppose the public’s right to know? Let me now pivot from religion to science: Years ago, a scientist from UVM who was doing his annual inspection of our vegetable fields told me that the most interesting thing about science isn’t so much about finding the answers as it is about uncovering more questions. After WWII, science told us that adding a hydrogen molecule to fat molecules was a wonderful solution for a problem many folks didn’t know we had: how to make the perfect pie crust. Hydrogenated oil, or transfats, became the next great thing, and few kitchens, commercial and industrial bakeries were without it, because it didn’t have the flavor of lard, and it stored forever. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and we are now re-visiting our unfettered acceptance of the Crisco technology, and we are, in fact, requiring labeling and even go so far as to outlaw its use in restaurants in some places. Thalidomide is another example of technology that was widely prescribed by doctors and used by pregnant women in the late fifties and early 60’s to relieve symptoms of morning sickness, until it was discovered that it led to birth defects. I don’t bring these examples up in order to fear-monger, and it could be pointed out that these are imperfect comparables to Genetic Engineering. My point is simply this: When we are told in testimony to trust the science, as thoughtful policymakers we are compelled to responsibly view it as one more version of the truth. Your House Ag Committee went deep into the science surrounding this, including discussion about meta-studies of lab results that might reveal certain lab result biases, and eight of us weren’t convinced that we should rely solely on the science, because we weren’t clear about the validity, scope, funding, and/or motives behind the studies. Yesterday a question came up about Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, is a bacteria used as an organic insecticide and also injected into the genome of some kinds of GE corn], along with the observation that it would be preferable to consume a natural product over a chemical one. There is a big difference between spray technologies and GE technology with regard to both targeted pests and potential health effects. Bt sprays break down very quickly in sunlight and precipitation; Bt as a stacked-trait technology becomes part of the genetic material of the plant, and as such, does not break down in the same way. One’s decision as to whether one way or another is more acceptable, ultimately comes down to personal opinion, based on the information they have in front of them at any given time. So I understand why the member from Colchester said what he did about his comfort level with regard to certain types of corn. I also believe that labeling could play a role in helping people make that personal decision. Many have proposed “GE-free,” or “certified organic” as labeling alternatives, and the member from Newport City alluded to an “elite and enlightened market.” Let me tell you that the words “produced with genetic engineering” and the variants as proposed in the bill will not only be on foods purchased and consumed by the enlightened elite, but by the enlightened masses, as well. One reason why GE-free or certified organic labels may in fact perpetuate what the member disparaged as an “elite and enlightened market” is that the testing for the absence of specific genetically engineered traits is much more rigorous, difficult, and expensive than testing for the presence of GE traits. To wrap it up, then: what are the issues surrounding GE technology that this bill addresses? Personal, cultural, health, environmental, and spiritual and religious concerns. Is labeling the answer to those concerns? I’d maintain that it is one answer; that it is a step. Finally, at the risk of answering a question with a question: When asked, “Why label, if 80-85% of our food already contains GE?” My response would be, “Why not label when UVM’s Center for Rural studies’ poll data shows that for years, more than 90% of Vermonters would like to see labeling?" What number do we value more?
Thanks again to Will Stevens for sharing his testimony.