Do you support the proposed Massachusetts GMO Labeling Law?

BACKGROUND NOTE:  UMass Professor, Dr. Elizabeth Vierling gave a presentation on the science of genetic modification for Grow Food Amherst on April 15, 2014 in the Amherst Town Hall.  She is an accomplished educator, dedicated to helping the public understand the complexities of genetic modification. The Grow Food Amherst Steering Committee has voted for Massachusetts legislation in support of the public right to know how their food is created by requiring GMO labeling.  Please read the following article and share your own thoughts in the comments box below.

Do you support the proposed Massachusetts GMO Labeling Law?


By ELIZABETH VIERLING; Tuesday, May 5, 2015

AMHERST — As a career educator, when I hear questions about “genetically engineered” plants (GMOs), I recognize how complex the issues are — and how difficult it is to sort out what our concerns should be.

One is labeling. We can go to the grocery store, and increasingly to restaurants, and find information about the nutritional content (or lack thereof!) in the food we buy. This information includes specific quantities of carbohydrates (sugars, starches and fiber), fats (oils), protein, vitamins, minerals, calories and serving sizes, as well as other information (e.g. additive content) as regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.

People are calling for information about whether a product contains ingredients derived from a GMO. Will that label really provide information important to us as consumers and citizens?

There are at least two major reasons to want the “GMO” label. One reason is to enable individuals to make the choice to avoid buying products they feel support the crop monoculture and seed monopolies considered to be corporate-controlled agriculture. This “Big Ag” can be viewed as the driver of a variety of social and economic ills, although where blame lies is tied up in the agricultural economics of farm subsidies, world trade, food supply and other complex issues.

From this perspective, choosing not to purchase GMO-containing foods as the “socially responsible” choice would be similar to why many of us try to avoid buying products from any company we presume exploits its employees, damages the environment, or otherwise counters values we may view as critical to human health and the future of our planet.

What’s in a label?

However, if this is a major motivation, the GMO label alone does not serve the purpose, as corporate agriculture produces much more than the corn and soybeans that are the primary GMO crops in our food chain today. (There are minor amounts of GMO alfalfa used as hay, and sugar beets produced for sugar). Contrary to what many think, no wheat, rice, potatoes, peanuts, fruits (with the exception of Hawaiian papayas), or other major component of our diet comes directly from GMO plants.

Thus, foods with the GMO label would identify only a part of “Big Ag” products. It is difficult to know if avoiding such products would limit the reach of “Big Ag” without also damaging other sectors of the farm economy.

Of course, another major reason to want the GMO label relates to health. Although major medical and science groups, includes virtually all of the oldest and most respected scientific organizations in the world, have deemed current GMOs safe, doubt remains.

Here it becomes important to consider what makes a GMO a GMO. Take GMO soybeans. Soybeans have been engineered to have a tolerance to herbicides, one being the infamous “Roundup” produced by Monsanto.

What change was needed to make soybeans herbicide resistant? It involved modification of a single protein, one already found in plants, and one that you have eaten every time you have eaten a plant. We know proteins are important in our daily diets, but perhaps do not know that proteins are made from strings of amino acids. To make a soybean plant resistant to Roundup, scientists changed two out of the approximately 500 amino acids of one protein (called “EPSP synthase”) found in all plants so that it could still do its job for the plant, even in the face of Roundup.

Soybeans and other plants contain thousands of proteins, and therefore hundreds of thousands of amino acids. Changing only two amino acids was required to make an herbicide-resistant plant. This is amazing — that such a small change can have this effect. The compositional difference between a GMO soybean and a non-GMO soybean is so tiny that there are more differences among different varieties of soybeans than between a GMO soybean and its non-GMO parent.

In terms of labeling, the GMO content of the GMO soybean is this one protein. Because there are so many proteins in soybeans and other plants, the GMO protein comprises less than 1 percent of all the protein in the soybean. So if you eat pure soybean protein, it is very likely that much less than 1 percent of what you are eating is a genetically modified protein.

What if you buy soybean oil from a GMO plant or something made with soybean oil? If you read the current label on any soybean oil and look for the amount of protein, you will find the number “zero”. Oils produced from plants do not contain protein, or contain so little, it is not even measurable. This means that foods containing soybean oil (or for that matter corn oil) do not contain any GMO ingredients.

Do we need to avoid high fructose corn syrup from GMO corn? The nutritional label on corn syrup will also say zero protein. We may want to avoid high fructose corn syrup for lots of reasons, but it won’t contain GMO protein. If the health effects come from the genetic modification, which is the introduced protein, then the label should specify how much of the genetically modified protein is present, just as labels now specify how much protein, carbohydrate, oil, or additives are present in food. Should soybean oil be labeled GMO if it actually contains none of the GMO ingredient? Should products made with corn oil or high fructose corn syrup be labeled GMO when they contain none of the GMO ingredient?

Limits of labels

If we want to know what we are eating, a label that indicates a product came from a GMO source does not really tell us much and can be misleading. Do we want our labels to correctly indicate GMO content? If so, then each product should be tested and the percentage of GMO ingredient actually listed. Only then could we actually know what the GMO label would mean.

I do not think it makes sense to label foods as GMO for reasons of avoiding products of “Big Ag.” Our current system of agriculture needs an overhaul to achieve sustainability, and GMOs are not the major culprit here, as the system was broken and unsustainable before the first commercial GMO field was planted in 1996.

In fact, the “right” GMOs, with pathogen resistance or drought tolerance, water or nitrogen use efficiency, could be one part, though in no way all of the solution.

Yes, all GMOs need to be regulated and tested, as each GMO is different. We no longer casually introduce non-native plants to solve our erosion problems, and we monitor our borders for the hitchhiking seed, insect or pathogen.

So assessment of each GMO remains essential. It is, however, a tragedy that the public perception of GMOs is so negative, when the potential is there to add one more tool towards improvements in agriculture.

Achieving sustainable agriculture is an important goal for the world, and not enough funding is devoted to research and training towards achieving this end.

We need more fun runs, walk-a-thons and nonprofits supporting this type of research, not to mention federal investment. It is ironic that so many of us donate to efforts to conquer disease, when without a sustainable food supply, disease will be the last of our concerns.

Elizabeth Vierling is a distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has followed the development of “transgenic plant technology” (how GMOs are made) from its inception during her graduate school years and uses this technology in federally funded research at UMass. With support from the National Science Foundation, she has given presentations in Amherst and elsewhere on genetic engineering technology.

Source URL:

For more information on Dr. Vierling’s work related to GMO plants, see:

And for a very thoughtful response, see:

And if you want to TAKE ACTION about the proposed labeling law, see:



5 thoughts on “Do you support the proposed Massachusetts GMO Labeling Law?

  1. Sensible and reasonable article.
    Some GMOs have been developed to create healthful products, Canola oil is one example. Developed by Ag Canada scientists in the 1970s at the Ag Station in Saskatoon Saskatchewan via transgenic technology to reduce erucic acid and another undesirable to make it healthier for humans, and the processed meal edible by livestock. Many claim it is a heart healthy product. It is used in lots of prepared foods as a substitute for other fats.


  2. I appreciate Dr. Verlings remarks, and learned much about the details involved with the production and genetic makeup of GMO’s. But I still have many concerns about GMO’s, many involve the tactics of the companies producing them. Here are a few of my concerns, which were not addressed in the article:

    1- The companies producing GMO corn promised that it would never get mixed with land race corn found in Mexico. But in 2000, Dr Ignacio Chapela and his students found GMO corn in land race corn, contaminating threatens Mexico’s unique maize genetic diversity. Corn was first domesticated in Mexico some 10,000 years ago.

    2- Thanks to NAFTA, US grown, cheaper GMO corn, subsidized by the US government, flooded Mexico. Many Mexican corn farmers lost their corn farms because they couldn’t compete with US subsidized GMO corn. Mexico is now a net importer of corn, their native plant.

    3-GMO products were tested for effects on health and the environment for only 3 months, the minimum required by law. Experience has taught us that carcinogens and mutagens don’t affects us and the environment in only 3 months. in some cases they can take 10-20 years to become evident and another 10 years for the FDA to test and ban them. The United Nations’ International Agency for Research on Cancer, said glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup, was “classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.” Do we ignore these reports and continue supporting these companies?

    4-The tactics used by Monsanto, in particular, are disturbing. Suing farmers whose crops have become contaminated by GMO seeds has become commonplace. The government protects GMO’s as intellectual property, but what’s to keep Monsanto from tossing their GMO seeds into a farmer’s field? Once the farmer has been found guilty of growing GMO seeds not purchased from Monsanto, they have to fork over all of that years’ profits to Monsanto. This ruins our small and medium farmers who can’t pay high legal costs to fight Monsanto.

    5- Marion Nestle, author, registered dietitian, professor at NYU, was on a panel many years ago advising the government on GMO’s. One of their concerns was pest and plant resistance to GMO’s. GMO manufacturers assured them that wouldn’t happen. We are now seeing strains of “super weeds” that can’t be killed by anything, GMO manufacturer’s recommendation has been to apply more product, thus increasing sales.

    6- There is concern that the Bacillum Thuringensis used for GMO Bt corn may continue to function in human intestines, affecting our intestinal flora.

    7-GMO manufacturers assured farmers that they would have more choice with GMO’s, but the opposite has happened. Farmer’s are seeing less and less choice in the variety of seeds they can purchase, with the greatest decrease in conventional seeds.

    8- GMO’s are inherently unstable. If GMO’s are found to be harmful to our health and/or the environment, how do we remove them? Scientists don’t know how long GMO’s last in the plant, how many generations will carry the mutation.

    9- GMO manufacturers claim to want to help solve our food crisis, especially as the population increases. I don’t believe we will solve the food crisis by concentrating production and seed rights in the hands of a few, powerful, well connected companies. I believe that supporting farmers all over the world, who use sustainable practices that protect soil and don’t poison our life support systems are a much safer path to take, both for humans and the environment.

    Europe follows the “precautionary principle” with production of chemicals and other products that could be harmful to health and the environment. The US needs to adopt this practice with GMO’s and all other chemicals introduced by manufacturers. I will continue to avoid GMO’s and support labeling laws until more research is conducted on the effects of GMO’s on health and the environment by trustworthy organizations.


  3. I’d like to clarify that “labeling GMOs,” under current laws (VT, ME, NH) and most of the current bills (including H 3242, currently pending in the MA legislature), does not mean “labeling ingredients” as the author repeatedly asserts. The proposed label language would need to be on the front or back of the package, generally–it cannot be in/near the ingredient list, as that is an area preempted by federal law. Same goes for her suggestion that food be labeled with “the percentage of GMO ingredient actually listed”–that is currently not allowed under federal food labeling laws.

    The language of GMO labeling laws and proposed laws is also clearly not about “labeling ingredients.” For example, the proposed language in Massachusetts’ bill is that, In the case of a genetically engineered raw food product packaged for retail sale, the manufacturer would include the words “Genetically Engineered” or “Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
    In the case of any packaged food product containing some products of genetic engineering, the manufacturer would use the words “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

    So the whole “some products made from GE plants don’t contain GE proteins” argument is not relevant to the proposed labeling regime. Many of us in the “Just label it (at least until a credible regulatory regime is in place)” crowd are concerned about the potential for GMOs to have unpredictable effects on both the farmed and the uncultivated environment, and not only because GE crops are part of the whole Big Ag cancer. They are (hello, skyrocketing Roundup sales!), but they also have the ability to pose environmental risks that are qualitatively different than those posed by conventional Big Ag crops.

    So while many on both sides of this issue appear to agree that individual GE crops should be better evaluated under a more transparent and holistic regime, who among us expects this to happen in a comprehensive and credible way at the federal level in the near future? Once again, Americans must shoulder the burden of a government that doesn’t base regulation on the Precautionary Principle; those who give a damn about the environment are left with “consumer action” as the only reasonable action, and labeling is how this can be done.


  4. Thanks for the thoughtful responses! I “bumped into” another serious article by a science writer who clearly understands the technology and makes the case that “the biggest concerns about GMO food are not really about GMOs.” See: “

    The author reminds us that the situation is complex with respect to the environmental impact of GMO’s and that “big ag” will continue with or without GMOs, so why all the fuss?

    I agree with Amie above…. there is little chance that any reasonable environmental or consumer protection legislation will be possible without federal campaign finance legislation. Given that regulatory oversight of GMO technologies is so weak and congress seems bent on reducing funding for environmental research, we are left with right to know legislation as the only path for those of us who have questions or concerns. Its not an ideal solution but in an imperfect world, labeling legislation may be the best way to continue to shine the light on GMO technologies.

    Labeling will allow the conversation to continue.


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