The State of Vermont has passed a statute mandating the labeling of genetically engineered foods as of July 1, 2016. Other states have considered and are considering similar legislation. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation to preempt all state legislation on the labeling of genetic engineering. The Senate failed by a vote of 48-49 to preempt the states, falling well short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate.

Several major companies have now made independent decisions to label their products as made with genetic engineering given the vacuum left by the Senate. They are making the best of a bad situation but the right solution is still federal preemption coupled with a national system of transparency. ConAgra made that point in their statement:

“ConAgra Foods will begin adding labels to products nationwide by July 2016 to meet Vermont’s GMO labeling requirements. We stand behind the health and safety of all of our products, including those with genetically modified ingredients, and believe consumers should be informed as to what’s in their food. But addressing state-by-state labeling requirements adds significant complications and costs for food companies. With a multitude of other states currently considering different GMO labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever. That’s why we continue to urge Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible.”

Many commentators have noted that multiple state labeling schemes will impede interstate commerce and raise the cost of food to the consumer. The larger concern is that the labeling controversy may also undercut global food security. While the Congress is debating who controls the label….the states or the federal government…the public just hears a debate about genetic engineering. That debate scares the public, creating a barrier to the acceptance of genetic engineering and hurting developing countries the most. The Information and Technology Foundation made that point in their February publication titled “Suppressing growth: How GMO opposition hurts developing nations.”

Those who support state labeling are not all of one mind or motivation. Some advocates of state labeling do so because they support the consumer’s right to know. Others, however, are using the labeling campaign and the current labeling chaos to gain an economic advantage. Marketing is fair game in business, but let’s recognize that some organic food companies link their marketing claims to allegations of health and safety risks associated with genetic engineering (Academics Review, 2014).

There is a broad consensus in the scientific community that genetic engineering is safe, as are the foods and food ingredients produced from genetically engineered crops that are now in our food supply. It is imperative that the best science, including genetic engineering, is available to increase food production sustainably. The hang up, and it is a serious hang up, is how to provide information to the public in a factual, straight-forward manner without implying that GM foods are unsafe. Only the federal government, speaking with one voice, can give the public confidence in genetic engineering.  

The Senate vote last month failed because the right compromise was not reached on how to provide information to consumers and whether action should be mandated. It did not fail because Democratic Senators support state labeling systems, with a few exceptions. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) supports the Vermont statute but most Democratic senators who voted against federal preemption support the use of genetic engineering coupled with transparency. How to achieve that transparency is the issue on the table.

The term “labeling” means different things to different people. The FDA, for example, requires listing of food ingredients and nutrition facts that have health implications on package labels. But the term is now being used by Secretary Vilsack and others in a much larger context. It can mean providing information to the consumer in a variety of ways.....a QR code, calling an 800 number, or a web site. Consumers are seeking more information (on everything) and not providing that information only creates suspicion.

In The Atlantic magazine this month, there is a fascinating article entitled The Obama Doctrine. The article focuses on international affairs and the president’s world view but may also be relevant to food security. In part, the president says: “I believe that overall humanity has become…healthier, better fed…but it’s hugely uneven.” He continued, “Right now, across the globe, you’re seeing places undergoing severe stress because of globalization…because of scarcities….because of population growth.”  I suspect there would be bipartisan agreement on this point.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) spoke for many Democrats when he said: “The food and agriculture industry has made a compelling argument that, in this case, a uniform national standard is necessary to avoid confusion and increased cost in the marketplace as well as chaos in distribution channels…..I support a national standard for GMO labeling provided that it is paired with specific disclosure requirements that provide consumers with the information they need to make an informed decision about the foods they eat.”  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack again stressed after the senate vote that “we need a national approach.”

The world will find it much more difficult, if not impossible, to feed itself in the years ahead unless it continues to use the most modern science to increase the food supply and make agriculture more sustainable. Transparency is also important in modern America, so let’s not let the labeling debate undermine public confidence in the use of sound science and become a barrier to progress.

The Senate needs to regroup before July 1 and move compromise legislation forward. Take #2 is in order.


Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and the Committee on Agriculture, specializes in agriculture and food security at OFW Law. He Chaired the Obama for President, Committee on Agriculture and serves on the Boards of the World Food Program—USA, the Congressional Hunger Center and the Food Research Action Center.



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