Late Thursday night, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) reached an agreement about creating a national GMO labeling bill. The deal has been long-awaited, especially in light of the fact that Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling bill will go into effect on July 1st. Although that law will essentially be a national labeling standard, a federal solution would preempt the law and provide one, consistent labeling requirement for the entire nation.
According to NPR:
Under the plan, food companies would be required to disclose which products contain genetically modified ingredients. But companies would have a range of options in just how they make that disclosure: They could place text on food packaging, provide a QR (Quick Response) code, or direct consumers to a phone number or a website with more information.
The definition of GMO is extremely narrow. As Agriculture.com reports: “The definition of genetic engineering, or “bioengineering,” would be restricted to traits developed through recombinant DNA techniques, which involve transferring a gene from one organism to another. Techniques such as RNA interference as well as gene editing would be exempt.”
The law would not go into effect for up to two years, because federal regulations would have to be written first. Animal products from animals fed GMO feed would not meet the definition of genetic engineering and, therefore, would not require a label.
Interestingly, the federal government would not have the ability to recall food or impose fines for violating the law. State governments, however, could pass laws to enforce the labeling requirement pursuant to the consumer protection statutes.
So far, it’s an interesting reaction the the bill with politics, as usual, making strange bedfellows. Both opponents and proponents of mandatory GMO labeling laws are dismayed with this deal. Perhaps that means it was a true compromise?
The American Farm Bureau Federation released a statement about the agreement, in which they stated:
We appreciate Chairman Roberts’ diligence in taking action prior to the Vermont law’s going into effect. This deal clearly seeks to prevent a 50-state mismatched quilt of differing labeling standards. But the mandatory feature holds significant potential to contribute to confusion and unnecessary alarm. Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe a national, voluntary standard remains the best approach. Our board will deliver a decision soon.
Not surprisingly, many GMO labeling activists are squarely opposed to the compromise because it doesn’t require labeling directly on the package. The Center for Food Safety (an anti-modern agriculture organization, despite the name) and the organic food company Stonyfield Farm are squarely against any such bill.
The Good Parts
Despite the fact that we will now have a mandatory GMO labeling requirement in the United States, this isn’t really the worst thing in the world.
Companies won’t have to put a scary looking label on the actual package. For the minority of consumers that actually care about such things, they can take the extra steps necessary to find out about any genetically modified ingredients. A code, phone number, or website identifying the GMO ingredients is a good compromise. If you want to know, you can waste your own time looking it up.
It eliminates the potential for a patchwork of costly and confusing state-by-state laws. That’s great because such a scenario would be costly and completely unhelpful. One can only imagine if a Vermont-style law was passed in each state that things would be absolutely hopeless. This legislation will effectively trump Vermont’s law and stop it in its tracks, as well as any other state that tries to do this type of thing.
It’s also limited in scope. The definition of “GMO” is limited and doesn’t include newer technologies. And it only counts if the gene is taken form organism and placed in another. That means Arctic Apples, which simply turn off a gene in the apple, should not have to carry a label. Nor do animal products have to carry a label.
There aren’t any penalties for not complying at the national level. While I’m positive that states will fill the gaps, at the very least this will hopefully keep the costs of implementing the labeling in check. It will also protect companies from lawsuits in federal courts and hefty fines.
It will also put an end to all of the GMO labeling campaigns that seem to happen each cycle in different states. I cannot stress how good this is – these campaigns amounted to nothing more than anti-GMO propaganda being poured into consumers hands for months on end. The campaigns had no check, could say whatever they wanted, and never seemed to shy away from lying. It was also an opportunity to raise money for their efforts. The federal law should put an end to that circus.
The Bad Parts
Well, it’s a mandatory labeling requirement for GMOs…so that’s obviously bad.
I also think this is too little too late.
Forgive me for giving a civics lesson, but here we go. The Senate Agriculture Committee does not get to pass legislation into law. The bill will have to be passed by the entire Senate, perhaps as early as next week. But the House hasn’t passed any legislation like this – it passed a voluntary labeling scheme last summer. That means this great compromise bill will have to be passed in the House, which is in recess until July 5th. Then, of course, President Obama will have to sign it into law.
Folks, Vermont’s law goes into effect on July 1st.
By now, companies have been working to comply with that law, which requires labeling on the actual package. Pepsi, Campbell’s, and others have already starting printing those labels. So, while the federal law that which will eventually be passed (hopefully…) won’t require on-package labels, many large companies have already started taking that approach. Whether we have a federal solution or not, we already have GMO labeling.
By imposing mandatory labeling on genetically modified crops, it also means that activists have a victory. They may be complaining about it not being precisely what they wanted, but they did get mandatory labeling. Mandatory. Labeling. That’s a win for them whether they want to admit it or not (though I kind of like seeing them upset about it, I won’t lie…).
I’m sure there will be much more discussion in the days and weeks ahead. I’ll also be looking for answers to other lingering questions (does this apply to medicinal uses of biotechnology?). Of course, we have to actually get this compromise passed into law, and who knows how likely that is or how long it will take.
But I am overall disappointed and frustrated. We now have mandatory GMO labeling and we’re stigmatizing an important and necessary tool for meeting the world’s growing food demands.