Star Advertiser

by Staff

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Mar 13, 2013

The push for better disclosure about food products containing a genetically modified organism has grown more heated and energetic this year, with the introduction of state legislation to require labeling stating that the product contains GMOs.

Unfortunately, the state lacks the power of the federal government to address the problem, so legislation now moving through the state Senate is unlikely to succeed.

The debate has raised awareness of the issue, including the sheer number of unanswered questions about the foods in general. There are many strategies used in engineering a crop by altering its genetic material in a laboratory, each aiming for a specific improvement. The spectrum includes everything from GMO papaya that is resistant to ringspot virus to corn that can tolerate being sprayed with a weed-killer.

The agricultural industry often touts the significant increase in crop yields, and in a world plagued by hunger, that is a trait not to be lightly dismissed. But it must be weighed against the legitimate concerns about the long-term health effects of consuming such foods: The scientific evaluations are still inconclusive.

In the absence of firm conclusions in such a complex field of food-safety research, a measure to require labeling, such as House Bill 174, is an understandable attempt to bring clarity to consumer decisions.

Advocates say that shoppers could make their own risk assessment about the foods they eat, if they could read a label disclosing any GMO content in a product.

As rational as the desire for information is, HB 174 is not the instrument for gaining better disclosure because it's likely to draw a legal challenge. The state Department of the Attorney General has testified against the bill, asserting that it would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, on two separate grounds. Federal laws on food labeling would pre-empt those issued by Hawaii or any other state, under the supremacy clause.

Further, HB 174 applies to imported foods but not Hawaii products, which violates the Constitution's commerce clause because it imposes special requirements on food coming in from the other 49 states. Several of the bill's advocates recommended that it cover all products sold here to avoid that problem.

But even if the rule applied across the board and enforcement challenges could be overcome, it's hard to see how the supremacy clause issue can be solved. This means that it's up to Congress to press for further research on the safety of bioengineered foods. Additionally, federal agencies should set new rules requiring the disclosure of genetically engineered methods in food production, and the labeling of food products, across the country.

In the meantime, it's encouraging to see select retailers taking the lead on labeling foods containing no GMO ingredients. Whole Foods Market, for example, has partnered with the nonprofit Non-GMO Project ( to identify products certified to be GMO-free and label them as such. Just as in programs to brand products as "organic" or "locally grown," it makes good marketing sense to make a product's desirable qualities explicit. In addition, Whole Foods recently announced a new initiative to require labeling of GMO products from its own suppliers by 2018.

Down to Earth Organic & Natural, Hawaii's largest locally founded natural-food retailer, also gives preference to foods verified by the Non-GMO Project, and announced Monday that it will require GMO foods to be labeled by 2018.

Considering that laboratory-engineered crop cultivation is not quite two decades old, GMO products have achieved a stunning market penetration in the U.S. A report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications puts the GMO domination of the feed corn supply at 88 percent; 95 percent of the nation's sugar beets and 94 percent of the soybeans are genetically engineered, too.

Consumers should have far better information about what they eat, but given this reality, it's the federal government, not the state, that's empowered to ensure that its citizens get what they need.