Legislation that would establish a uniform standard for labeling on GMOs for food throughout the country has made it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support and is now set to be introduced to the Senate floor.
There is a bit of urgency in getting this bill through before July 1, when a state Law in Vermont to label all food products containing GMO ingredients will be put in place.
“Vermont’s law was intended to reshape the U.S. food supply, it was not targeted to just affecting one state,” said John Bode, President and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association. “It applies to the manufacturers of food and not the retailers, so food manufacturers across the country will have to relabel their products and change their sourcing.”
The result, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is that this law will negatively impact food prices nationally. One study found that, because of the Vermont labeling law, the average American household food cost will go up in the next year by $1,050.
The proposed law making its way through Congress would make GMO labeling voluntary on a national level.
“Currently, we have lots of labeling that says ‘Non-GMO’ or ‘GMO Free’ and all of that is good as long as it is accurate,” Bode said. “The new law would not require on product labeling if a GMO is used, unless there is something significantly different about that food.”
About 80% of the foods in the U.S. food supply are made with the benefit of biotechnology.
“The key to this legislation is that it avoids the ‘scary label’ requirement,” Bode said. “That is what is going on in most of today’s GMO labeling. They are not used to inform consumers, they are used to scare them and discourage the use of biotechnology.”
When consumers hear about differences of opinion in terms of GMO labeling, many will see it as pro-GMO vs. anti-GMO, but there are many players behind both groups.
“Mainstream agriculture, farmers and the food industry are all saying that we need a national approach that is uniform and makes sense,” Bode said. “On the other side, it’s a little more interesting. There are activists who oppose the use of biotechnology and they feel that if labeling is forced, they can organize against the use of biotechnology.
“Those activists are getting funding from parts of the organic food industry who have the view that if their competitors have to have a scary label, their competitors’ sales will go down and, in turn, theirs will go up.”
Bode said that as in so many of policy arguments, this is a matter of following the money and finding agendas that are not quite as clearly stated on the surface. One group in clear opposition to the Senate labeling bill is Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
“The legislation introduced by Senator Roberts and passed by the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee..ignores the growing demand from the majority of U.S. citizens to have clear and honest food labeling. Everyone deserves the very basic right of knowing what ingredients are in their food and how that food was produced; that information should not be withheld from the public. Food derived from genetic engineering should be required to be labeled. Enshrining voluntary labeling in this legislation is reiteration of decades of failed policy,” said Amalie Lipstreu, OEFFA policy program coordinator. “This legislation would call for the USDA to promote the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is not the role of the USDA to advance one form of agriculture above another. Organic agriculture offers benefits to the environment, public health, and local food economies and yet it cannot be advanced above other forms of agriculture by USDA. This bill would create an uneven playing field during a time when public demand for organic and sustainably grown food is at an all-time high. Senators have an opportunity to listen to their constituents and provide them with the food information and choices they want. We hope they soundly reject the Roberts bill and join with the 64 other countries of the world that require mandatory labeling of GE food.”