Last week, President Barack Obama signed legislation requiring manufacturers of genetically modified (GM) food to provide labeling on their products. But there’s just one problem — err, a couple problems . . . actually a lot of problems. There are a lot of problems with this bill.
The new law originated in the Senate as S. 764, “A bill to reauthorize and amend the National Sea Grant College Program Act, and for other purposes.” Lawmakers commonly insert policies on controversial issues into other, more amenable bills to keep them hidden and ensure their passage.
Sure enough, the new GM labeling bill, focused around a college program, contains language that appears, on its face, to address the concerns of millions of Americans regarding GM foods. While establishment institutions and experts insist they are safe, others worry not enough research has been conducted to guarantee as much.
While the lawmakers who crafted the bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), argue it is an appropriate compromise in response to fears surrounding GM products, food advocacy groups found multiple holes in its wording prior to the bill’s passage.
The first — and most contentious — is S. 764’s decree that food companies are not necessarily required to label genetically modified products in text form. While doing so is an option, according to the new law, food manufacturers may also choose to denote GM ingredients with a symbol or a QRC (quick response code) that, when scanned by a smartphone, will take the consumer to a website detailing further information about the product. The QRC method requires the consumer to have both a smartphone and access to the internet.
While the QRC option sounds high-tech, some lawmakers and activists have criticized its limitations. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) argued on the House floor that “It is an intentional measure to deny consumers information,” as reported by The Hill. “The reality is that not every American has access to a smartphone or the Internet.”
Another problem with the bill is its lax standards and broad definitions. For example, the bill stipulates that if a majority of a product contains meat, it need not be labeled as containing GM ingredients, even if other ingredients are genetically modified (in contrast, a pepperoni pizza would need to be labeled if the flour in the pizza came from GM grain). While genetically modified animal meat is only beginning to make its way into the food supply, the new labeling bill establishes a concerning exemption for the future. Eggs will also not be subject to GM labels.
Further, the new law “prohibit[s] a food derived from an animal to be considered a bioengineered food solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance.” In other words, if an animal ate GM feed throughout its life, food companies would not need to inform the consumer.
Even the FDA, known for its collusion with various powerful industries, expressed concerns about the bill’s language. The agency stressed its opposition to labeling, maintaining GM foods are safe, but still pointed out confusion and conflicts within the bill.
The FDA noted the definition of “bioengineering” “will likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to this bill. For instance, oil made from GE soy would not have any genetic material in it. Likewise, starches and purified proteins would not be covered.”
Though the language of the bill is vague, it explicitly nullifies the GM labeling law passed in Vermont last year. That bill, which industry lobbyists aggressively attacked, would be overruled by S. 764, which dictates that “state-imposed labeling requirements would be banned,” as noted by Bloomberg. Vermont’s bill only took effect on July 1 of this year.
Yet another issue with the bill stems from the powerful organizations that supported its passage. As Bloomberg reported, Monsanto, Walmart, and the National Corn Growers Association all pushed for the legislation to pass (currently, over 90% of all corn acreage in the United States is used to grow genetically modified crops).
Still another powerful industry lobbying group pushed for S.764’s passage. As Mother Jones reported earlier this year when the bill was still being negotiated, “Grocery Manufacturers Association [GMA], a deep-pocketed trade group funded by major food processors as well as agrichemical/GMO titans like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, praised [the proposed law] as the ‘commonsense solution for consumers, farmers and businesses.” The GMA also sued Vermont over its recent GM labeling bill.
While the Organic Trade Association (OTA) did endorse the bill, its support sparked division within the organic food industry. Shortly after the group announced its support, one of its member organizations, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Organization (OSGTO), responded by withdrawing its membership.
The OSGTO statement accused the OTA of “duplicity,” adding:
“Recent revelations have made clear that the OTA has created numerous close partnerships with Monsanto including intensive lobbying efforts by the notorious biotech-linked lobbyist Podesta Group on behalf of the deal brokered by Senators Stabenow (D-MI) and Roberts (R-KS).”
The statement also accused the OTA of partnering with organic companies run by food conglomerates who lobby Congress for favorable legislation.
In fact, the two lawmakers who crafted the bill, Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts, are direct beneficiaries of lobbyists. Stabenow’s sixth largest donor in 2016 was Dow Chemical, which, coincidentally, lobbied for S. 764’s passage. (Stabenow’s other donors include Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase & Co.) Stabenow accepted more money from agribusiness political action committees (PACs) in 2016 than from any other industry PACs.
Similarly, Roberts’ top PAC donations came from special interests. One of his top donors is DuPont, another chemical company that lobbied in favor of S. 764. Like Stabenow, he has received money from other powerful donors, including Goldman Sachs, Koch Industries, and Pfizer.
Congress follows a similar path to Stabenow and Roberts, evident in that lawmakers have attempted to push anti-labeling legislation — often dubbed Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) acts — through Congress before. “Big Agriculture” lobbied intensely for the latest version of S. 764 and contributes regularly to political campaigns.
Nevertheless, prior to the bill’s passage, White House spokesperson Katie Hill told Bloomberg, “While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers’ interest in knowing more about their food, including whether it includes ingredients from genetically engineered crops.”
But considering the numerous flaws in the bill, activist organizations remain steadfast in their opposition. As Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said:
“This bill is a travesty, an undemocratic and discriminatory bill which preempts state laws, while offering no meaningful labeling for GMOs.”
Pursuant to the new law, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two years to formulate specific standards for labeling, meaning the controversy surrounding the labeling of GM foods is far from over.