Title

A Call for Transparency in the Food System: Case Studies of State and Federal Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Labeling Initiatives in the United States

Date of Award

4-2-2018

Semester of Degree

May

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Major Professor

Theresa Selfa

Steering Committee Member

Rick Welsh

Steering Committee Member

Carmen Bain

Steering Committee Member

Paul Hirsch

Steering Committee Member

Andrea Parker

Abstract

Biotechnology in the food system has become a contentious issue in the United States, as citizens, activists and policymakers question the environmental, moral, socio-economic, human health and ethical aspects behind this technology. While U.S. governmental agencies assure the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) included or the practice of genetic engineering (GE) in the food supply, the public has remained wary and skeptical. Social movements for the labeling of GMOs have sprouted across the United States beginning in the early 2010s on the West coast with limited success. However, the Northeast, U.S. has seen a mix of success, failure and stagnation with Connecticut and Maine passing GMO labeling laws partially in 2013 and 2014 respectively and Vermont enacting the first labeling law in 2016 followed almost immediately by the passage of a federal labeling bill one month later. This research project takes a mixed-methods approach relying on public testimony, Congressional witness testimony and interviews with stakeholders involved in the Northeast statewide and federal labeling initiatives to understand how the issue of GMOs and GMO labeling was framed in these policy-making settings and which types of framings led to policy passage. Drawing on and extending sociology of food and standards, science and technology studies, and frame and policy analysis, this doctoral dissertation research project examines the public discourses surrounding the issue of biotechnology in the food system as well as external factors influential in social movement outcomes such as advocacy coalition structures, resource access and political opportunity structures that are influential in the passage of a GMO labeling bill. The majority of frames at both state and federal scales focused on a “consumer right to know”, individualism frame that resonated well with the public. Vermont was unique in that the public’s and stakeholders’ frames focused on sustaining local civic agriculture in the state, which enhanced community solidarity and created a communal identity. Those frames coupled with an accessible citizen legislature, responsive legislators and absence of lobbyists created a favorable political environment for the grassroots labeling coalition’s success leading to policy passage.

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