'Big Food' Ready for Costly Battle as States Consider GMO Labeling Bills
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"Big Food" is ready for the challenge though and will use its influence and resources to protect profits gained from GMOs that are found in 80 percent of the food America consumes.
The fight has some state attorneys general worried if labeling laws would survive court challenges brought on by food producers. No matter the outcome, it would likely cost millions of dollars to defend them.
“States are getting somewhat gun-shy about being the lead state that’s going to have to pay the attorney fees should there be a successful lawsuit attacking the statute,” said Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell at a recent gathering of attorneys general in Washington, D.C.
“It’s coming to a number of your states,” he added. “The politics are huge. Good luck.”
Some consumer and environmental groups vehemently disapprove of GMOs, calling them “Frankenfood.” They argue GMO crops, which include corn, cotton and soybeans, pose unknown health and environmental risks.
About 50 percent of the 169 million acres of U.S. crop land grew genetically engineered crops in 2013, said the U.S Department of Agriculture in a new report. GMOs can be found in most cereals, frozen foods, meat, dairy, canned soup and even baby formula.
Giant "agribusinesses," including Monsanto and DuPont, contend the newest GMO technology is safe and allows them to produce more robust crop yields while using less water and pesticides. Labeling could increase the costs to consumers, they argue.
However, pesticide groups have rejected the claim regarding toxic chemicals, saying pesticide use has grown exponentially over the last 10 years and is only expected to multiply further given Dow AgroSciences' push to approve new, pesticide-resistant corn and soybean crops.
Regarding money, labeling itself would be “a tiny fraction of the costs” of complying with a labeling law, according to a 2013 report by the Washington Academy of Sciences. The actual costs would come from having to separate genetically engineered ingredients from other foods with those extra costs likely being passed on to consumers.
Washington’s state budget office stated it would cost roughly $3.4 million over six years for the state to enforce labeling requirements that voters considered, and rejected, last year.
“This is a national movement,” said Hawaii Attorney General David Louie at the recent attorneys general gathering. “Don’t think that it’s not coming to you.”
Even though 64 countries have mandated the labeling of GMO foods, the U.S. has been slow to adopt such regulation. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws, but the rules do not go into effect until at least three other states establish the same requirement.
Sixty-seven GMO labeling bills have been introduced in 25 states. In 12 of those states, at least one legislative committee has approved a GMO bill.
Other states with pending legislation on GMO labeling include California, Missouri, Minnesota and Rhode Island, according to Prah. In Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii and Oregon efforts are in motion to put the question on the ballot.
However, the future is less than certain given the food industry’s powerful pro-GMO lobby, which helped defeat previous GMO labeling bills in California, New Hampshire and Washington. In Washington alone, the GMO label bill was the most expensive ballot question in the state's history, costing activists and the food industry a combined $40 million.
States Face Daunting Legal Costs
Before Maine acted, state Attorney General Janet Mills said she warned lawmakers in a 10-page memo that the GMO bill would certainly face significant legal challenges if enacted and that defending it would be costly. “Without even reading my memo, they went into the back room, caucused 10 minutes and came back out and unanimously passed it. That is how effective I am in my legislature,” she said.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen cautioned that he had to be careful what he said because he might be defending his state’s labeling law enacted last year. “I will defend its constitutionality with every effort. But let me put it this way: The year before (it was passed) there was very, very healthy, strong opposition to the bill,” he said.
Pushing for Congressional Action
Critics and proponents of GMO labeling are asking Congress to act, but they are pressing for very different legislation.
A campaign led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association supports a federal labeling requirement, but only if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines there is a proven health or safety risk to GMOs.
But consumer and advocacy groups have derided the duplicitous initiative, saying it undermines state and federal legislation meant to grant consumers the right to know about the types of foods they're consuming.
“Attacking state labeling laws does nothing to address the increasing call from consumers for transparent (genetically engineered) food labeling,” according to a Center for Food Safety statement.
The U.S. House added a provision to the federal farm bill that would have overridden state GMO labeling efforts, but the measure was cut from the final version of the legislation.
Gaining Ground Against GMOs
- Whole Foods has announced by 2018 all products sold in its stores in the U.S. and Canada will need to divulge whether or not they contain GMOs.
- Recently the non-profit Green America mobilized 50,000 people to post comments on Cheerios’ Facebook wall and prompted more than 35,000 consumers to write in and telephone General Mills asking the major food producer to stop using GMOs in popular cereal brands. The initiative worked, General Mills complied and Post Cereals followed suit, agreeing to phase out GMOs from Grape Nuts, Chipotle, Ben & Jerry’s and Kashi.
- Kroger and Safeway have made commitments not to sell GMOs.
Visit EcoWatch’s GMO page for more related news on this topic.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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