BURLINGTON, Vermont — Ben & Jerry’s, the famed ice cream manufacturer, is rolling out new flavors. The names are the same, but the taste is different. Every flavor will be retooled until each is free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
This sudden move comes as a result of new legislation passed in Ben & Jerry’s headquarter state of Vermont. In April 2014, Vermont passed a law — the first of its kind in the U.S. — that requires any food containing GMOs to be labeled.
The state stands alone in this move, as similar laws failed to pass in California and Washington despite popular support. While labeling laws do exist in Connecticut and Maine, they only go into action once other states follow Vermont’s lead.
In regards to Vermont’s new requirement, Ben & Jerry’s did not solely accept it, but also supported Vermont legislators as the law was passed. The company now helps Vermont fight against detractors of the labeling law, namely the Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA), which sued the state just last week.
The GMA includes food producers that rely on GMOs for business and see the law as detrimental to their manufacturing process. Ironically, Unilever, the corporation that owns Ben & Jerry’s, belongs to the GMA as well.
If states sporadically pass labeling laws, industry experts say manufacturers will either have to overhaul all of their packaging or distribute separately to pro-labeling states. Both would incur massive costs.
The GMO Debate
The crux of the debate, however, lies in the actual safety of GMOs.
Advocates of labeling believe GMOs may very well be unsafe, but opponents claim that scientific studies show no cause for concern.
The World Hunger Argument
Proponents of GMOs often make the claim that adopting genetic engineering can end world hunger. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the U.N. estimates that more than 200 million people suffer from malnutrition. But only South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso allow for the commercial use of GM seeds.
Many African countries simply distrust the large and foreign agriculture businesses that peddle most GM products. But Calestous Juma, professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University, urges governments to be more open. Some seeds, he said, like those developed by U.S. agribusiness Monsanto, are drought-resistant and could provide much needed relief to local farmers.
Million Belay, coordinator of the pan-African platform Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA), disagrees. According to Belay, GMOs are not the solution to hunger. Instead, he believes that enriching poor soil through natural means will do more to promote a sustainable lifestyle than planting GM seeds.
Monsanto proudly lists on its website scientific papers that have apparently found no ill effects to human health as a result of GMO consumption. These studies include those conducted by reputable organizations like The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. The European Union’s decade-long study is also cited as a reputable source that shares this conclusion.
This seemingly widespread scientific consensus led the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to back such findings, stating, “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
But the scientific consensus is not entirely unanimous. In response to the AAAS, 21 of the organization’s members — all scientists — penned an open letter rejecting its conclusion that there is a scientific consensus. The scientists claim that the research, particularly the E.U. report, fails to show reliable evidence of GM food safety regarding human health or the environment. An additional 300 more scientists have further supported the letter.
Ben & Jerry’s is one of many companies jumping on the anti-GMO bandwagon in anticipation of more states adopting Vermont’s labeling law. Post and General Mill, two of the largest cereal manufacturers in the U.S., have already started to remove GMOs from many of their flagship products.
New York recently proposed a labeling bill that faced considerable debate before being buried.
For more information on the debate and Ben & Jerry’s involvement, read the Atlantic’s recent investigation here.
– Shehrose Mian