After more than a year of negotiations, Senators have reached a bipartisan deal regarding genetically modified ingredients. On Thursday, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas announced legislation that will require the labeling of GMOs nationally — kind of.
The legislation will be more lenient than a mandate slated to go into effect in Vermont July 1, however. Vermont's law would require products with biotech ingredients to be labeled as produced or partially produced with genetic engineering. Under the Roberts-Stabenow deal, that text would be optional: "Companies could instead use a symbol or an electronic label accessed by smartphone," reports the Associated Press.
In a statement, Roberts said the legislation will protect producers and inform consumers. "Unless we act now, Vermont law denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace is the law of the land," said Roberts. "Our marketplace — both consumers and producers — needs a national biotechnology standard to avoid chaos in interstate commerce."
Among the bill's key provisions is that it essentially preempts Vermont's law from being enacted altogether. As it reads, the Roberts-Stabenow legislation will "immediately prohibit states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that is genetically engineered. "
Though it mandates a "national standard" for GMO labeling, the requirements are lax. As it is written, the bill would allow companies to select almost any method to disclose the use of GMOs in a product — including QR codes, 800-numbers, websites, and, of course, on-pack labeling. Which begs the question, what company is going to label its product "Warning: Contains GMOs" when it could just slap a QR code or 800-number on the package instead?
Additionally, the Roberts-Stabenow bill will exempt any type of meat product: "Foods where meat, poultry, and egg products are the main ingredient are exempted. The legislation prohibits the Secretary of Agriculture from considering any food product derived from an animal to be bioengineered solely because the animal may have eaten bioengineered feed."
According to OpenSecrets, agriculture was one of the top five industries to contribute to Roberts' campaigns in recent years. Crop production was one of the top five to contribute to Stabenow's campaigns. So it's perhaps unsurprising that groups such as the American Soybean Association have expressed their support of the duo's measure.
In a press release, the group said the bill would "remove the stigmatization that comes with explicit language on products." That's because, according to ASA first vice president Ron Moore, consumers "react negatively when presented with a product containing a warning label." Moore was quoted in the ASA's release as saying stricter GMO labels would result in more expensive food. "If consumers panic and run from these products based on false stigmatization, companies are forced to reformulate away from this safe and affordable technology."
The Center for Food Safety called the bill a "blow to to the food movement and America's right to know" in a press release sent out Thursday afternoon. Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell went so far as to say it was,"in many ways worse than prior iterations of the DARK Act that were defeated - it is a blank check for biotech."
The so-called DARK Act, otherwise known as the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act, was also introduced by Senator Pat Roberts. That bill would have made GMO labeling for foods strictly voluntary, and prevented states from enacting their own legislature to mandate GMO labeling. The Senate blocked that bill in March.
According to Kimbrell, Roberts' new legislation is just the DARK Act 2.0 — one essentially crafted to benefit Big Ag, and keep consumers in the dark.
Daren Bakst, a Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy at the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), agrees that the new bill is even worse than the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act — but for entirely different reasons. "The issue of mandatory labeling is about misleading consumers by giving the impression that there's something wrong with genetically-engineered food," he says. "It legitimizes bad science."
Though much has been made of the cost of enacting such a bill (companies would have to pay increased labeling costs in order to comply, for instance), Bakst says there's a larger concern: that the law would essentially allow the federal government to compel speech — a First Amendment violation.
"Satisfying the curiosity of consumers is not valid justification for the government to compel speech," he says. "Labeling costs are important, but they pale in comparison to these other concerns — compelled speech, misleading consumers."
If the legislation is enacted, he says, the federal government could face lawsuits regarding that very issue. Agriculture and biotechnology, he adds, could suffer as a result of the bill, no matter how weak it might seem.
"Terms like 'genetic engineering' or 'genetically modified' don't sound very good and there's a lot of misinformation out there," says Bakst. "Biotechnology and agriculture has all kinds of incredible potential to help keep people safe from dangerous pests, to feed the world... that's something that we don't want to risk."
Polls have shown the vast majority of U.S. residents are in favor of labeling GMOs (some surveys have found as many as 77 percent of respondents strongly favor the idea). Yet some studies suggest that genetically engineered or modified ingredients are just as safe as conventional crops.
Update, 5:28 p.m.: This post has been updated to include statements from Daren Bakst and the Center for Food Safety.