(Beyond Pesticides, July 7, 2016) Despite an outpouring of letters, calls and protests, in a key procedural vote yesterday, the Senate voted to deny Americans the right to know what is in in their food products, and to preempt states’ rights to create their own genetically engineered food labeling laws. In a cloture vote of 65-32, the highly-flawed genetically engineered (GE or GMO) labeling bill, S.B. 764, offered by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Pat Roberts (R-KY), also known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, passed through the Senate. This “compromise” bill allows producers to use QR codes and “smart labels” instead of clear, on-package labeling of food products that contain genetically modified organisms, which means that consumers will need to use a smart phone for the information. The bill also exempts major portions of current and future GE foods from being labeled, and, in an affront against democracy, preempts the genetically engineered food labeling laws in Vermont (which went into effect July 1), Connecticut, Maine and Alaska.
“The American people have a right to know what they’re eating,” said Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who vowed to put a hold on the bill if they didn’t reach the 60 votes needed for cloture during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “The timing of this legislation is not an accident. Its goal is to overturn and rescind the very significant legislation passed in the state of Vermont. I will do everything that I can to see that it’s defeated.”
Before the vote on Wednesday, food and consumer advocates dropped over $2,000 on the chamber floor as part of a symbolic protest against the act, highlight the financial ties between senators and biotechnology companies. Additionally, polls and surveys show overwhelming public support for labeling of genetically engineered foods, yet the same food and chemical companies continue to ignore consumers fight for the right to know every chance they get.
“It is deeply disturbing that a majority in the Senate would support a bill that openly discriminates against America’s low income, rural and elderly populations,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director, Center for Food Safety. “This denies them their right to know simply because they are not able to afford or have access to smartphones. The bill itself is poorly drafted and would exempt many and perhaps most current genetically engineered foods from labeling. It was written behind closed doors between a handful of Senators and the big chemical and food companies. It is a non-labeling bill disguised as a labeling bill, a sham and a legislative embarrassment.”
The Senate bill includes no mandatory standards. Instead, it preempts Vermont’s law through a discretionary process that will be determined by a future Secretary of Agriculture. It also does very little to ensure consumers will actually have access to this information because the bill would allow for a range of labeling options that will not warn consumers —quick response (QR) codes, 800 numbers, websites and on-package labeling. This approach leaves poorer Americans at a disadvantage in receiving this information, as QR code labels require the use of a smartphone to read. Allowing food companies to decide how to label all but ensures they will work to misinform the public about their products; we have already seen big food links to websites that extol the safety of GE foods. The bill also contains a very weak definition the term “biotechnology” that may permit exemptions for a number of genetically engineered foods. There are no penalties for companies that do not comply with the conditions of the law.
An alternative approach to federal labeling, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act (S.2621), led by Senators Jeff Merkley (OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) would have required that all consumer food packaging visibly display GE ingredient labeling. While ensuring nationwide labeling, the legislation would still preempt states from requiring labeling, such as a warning, which is stronger than the language in the legislation. Beyond Pesticides believes it is important that even a positive, mandatory labeling requirement not preempt states from setting a higher bar regarding information provided on GE ingredients in food.
In addition to concerns over the safety of eating GE food, there are direct and indirect effects of GE agriculture on the environment, wildlife, and human health. GE agriculture is associated with the increased use of herbicides —particularly glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup— that crops are developed to tolerate. In light of findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a human carcinogen based on laboratory animal test data, consumers have even more cause for concern about the health risks that these products pose.
The only way to truly avoid food produced with genetically engineered crops or processed with genetically engineered ingredients in the marketplace is to purchase foods that have the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic seal. Under organic certification standards, genetically modified organisms and their byproducts are prohibited. Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture and is working to strengthen organic farming systems by encouraging biodiversity and holistic management practices, and upholding the spirit and values on which the organic law was founded. Underpinning the success of organic in the U.S. are small-scale producers who focus on fostering biodiversity, limiting external inputs, improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and using integrated holistic approaches to managing pests, weeds, and disease. To learn more about organic agriculture, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Agriculture, and Eating With a Conscious pages. For more information on GE foods and labeling issues, see Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering website.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.