After years of state-by-state battles over consumer calls for mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), time is quickly running out for the agribusiness and food manufacturing industries working to block such labeling.
The threat that ticking clock holds for the food industry was underscored Tuesday in a hastily held meeting of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. With less than an hour of discussion, members voted 14-6 to move forward with legislation that would prohibit state GMO labeling laws, notably one set to take effect July 1 in Vermont. Other states are considering similar laws.
The measure preempts "any state or political subdivision law relating to the labeling of whether food or seed is genetically engineered or developed or produced using genetic engineering" and "authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate regulations establishing a national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard."
The measure also outlaws any "express or implied claims regarding safety or quality based on whether food is or is not bioengineered or produced or developed with the use of bioengineering..."
Many of the senators in Tuesday's meeting cited the notion that something had to be done quickly before Vermont's labeling law takes effect.
"We're running out of time," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. She was one of three Democrats who joined with Republicans to vote for the bill -- she and other ag committee members said the bill needs work ("compromise") before it can pass the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and the bill's sponsor, has been working with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, to find a compromise that could pass the full Senate.
Compromise may be hard to come by. Consumer advocates for what has become known as the "Right to Know" movement across the country see labeling on a voluntary basis as little more than a slap in the face to millions of consumers who have concerns about the health and environmental impacts of GMO crops, and want to know if GMOs are used in the food they buy and consume. And nullifying a law already passed in Vermont only adds to the insult to voters and consumers.
"It is very disturbing that Republicans in Congress, while blocking any meaningful legislation, have found the time to push a law that deprives Vermont's citizens their right to know about the food they buy, and could rescind over one hundred and thirty other state laws on food and seed," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.
Those who want to see mandatory labeling say that among their concerns about GMO foods is a worry that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely used on genetically modified crops, is harmful to human health. Residues of the pesticide have been detected in foods, and a World Health Organization research unit earlier this year said glyphosate was a probable cause of cancer in humans.
In the meantime, the food and agribusiness fear of labeling, and the efforts to scare consumers over the issue, only promises to heat up. Ironically, the food industry doesn't just admit that they fear consumers will turn away from GMO foods if they are labeled; the industry embraces that fear as a central theme.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a chief backer of the legislation and other food industry backers warn that if labeling is required, consumers will turn away from GMO foods in droves, meaning farmers who grow GMO crops - the bulk of which are corn and soy - will suffer and food costs will soar. They give little to no nod to farmers who grow a multitude of other organic or conventional crops.
In a blog published Tuesday in The Hill, Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, said: "Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a 'skull and crossbones effect' on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques... If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up."
The measure now heads to the full Senate where passage is expected to be tricky. Sixty votes will be required to overcome a filibuster, and both senators from Vermont -- Sen Patrick Leahy and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders -- promise to oppose the law.
The GOP-backed bill would "move production methods into the shadows" and "give agriculture a black eye," Leahy told The Hill. "The legislation undermines the public's right to know."
Stabenow was quoted saying that if the law is to pass the Senate, "it must contain a pathway to a national system of mandatory disclosure that provides consumers the information they need and want to make informed choices."
A similar measure backed by Republicans was passed last July by the U.S. House of Representatives, 275-150. Only 45 Democrats voted for the bill.
Kimbrell said on Tuesday that supporters of mandatory labeling would be pushing senators to vote against the bill. "The Democrats who consented to pushing this bill forward will certainly be hearing from the food movement," Kimbrell said.