What's At Stake In The Senate's Looming GMO Labeling Battle

Industry groups are behind an aggressive push to make it harder to know if your food contains GMOs.
Activists protest against GMOs in a May 2015 march in Los Angeles.
Activists protest against GMOs in a May 2015 march in Los Angeles.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A key debate regarding products that contain genetically modified organisms -- specifically, the question of whether they should have to carry labels stating as much -- is set for a showdown.

Last week, legislation cleared the Senate Agricultural Committee that would block state-level laws mandating GMO labeling. The legislation, which the committee passed with bipartisan support in a 14-6 vote, favors a voluntary national standard rather than mandatory labeling. It would pre-empt a labeling law in Vermont, the first of its kind in the U.S., that's set to go into effect in July.

The bill, backed by Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), could be called to a Senate vote as early as next week, according to The Huffington Post’s sources. The House already approved similar legislation last year.

Backers of the Roberts bill, which include prominent industry figures like ConAgra, DuPont, Coca-Cola and Walmart, appear confident in the proposal’s chances, even as a rival group of senators has proposed alternative legislation.

The alternative bill, introduced last week, aims to protect state-level GMO laws while also working toward a plan that would avoid a national patchwork of conflicting regulations. It is backed by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The Democrats' bill outlines four different ways manufacturers can disclose the use of GMOs on the already-required nutrition facts panel. They include a catchall statement that the product was “produced with genetic engineering” at the end of the ingredient list and the inclusion of a symbol developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that would note the presence of GMOs. Neither front-panel disclosures nor “warnings” would be required.

In this October 2014 photo, signage above a soup bar in Boulder, Colorado, indicates that the menu items are GMO-free. The debate over GMO labeling appears ready to reach the Senate floor.
In this October 2014 photo, signage above a soup bar in Boulder, Colorado, indicates that the menu items are GMO-free. The debate over GMO labeling appears ready to reach the Senate floor.
Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

In a statement provided to HuffPost, Merkley said the legislation is a step toward “a solution that works for businesses and consumers alike.” Companies supporting the bill include Ben & Jerry’s, the Campbell Soup Company and Amy’s Kitchen.

There is a way to give consumers the information they are asking for without placing unfair or conflicting requirements on food producers,” Merkley's statement reads. “This legislation provides the common-sense pathway forward.”

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, the industry-backed group pushing Roberts’ bill, was unimpressed by the Merkley legislation. In a statement, the group said the proposal “would end up stigmatizing a technology the farmers [Merkley] represents rely on... It can’t pass, period.”

“This is another mandatory labeling solution in search of a non-existent problem,” the CFSAF statement reads. “Mandatory on-package labeling is reserved for important health and safety information or to distinguish material difference in products. This doesn’t apply to biotech labeling because the overwhelming scientific consensus shows that GMOs are completely safe.”

The FDA agrees, and has noted that foods containing GMOs are regulated by the agency and must meet the same safety requirements as non-GMO foods. The agency has backed voluntary labeling of GMOs. Still, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted that GMO crops could carry an environmental risk.

Questions of safety aside, proponents of labeling argue that consumers have a right to know as much information as possible about the food they eat.

Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group in favor of GMO labeling, called Roberts’ legislation “a crazy bill” and “a non-starter,” pointing out that it contains “science-backed” language that would add information about the benefits of biotechnology to food labels. Kimbrell argued that this aspect of the bill would give an unfair, taxpayer-funded advantage to firms relying on GMO crops.

“It’s not just taking away the right to know [what’s in our food]," Kimbrell told HuffPost. "It’s adding insult to injury."

Despite its successful committee vote, the Roberts bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the three Democratic senators who backed the Roberts bill in committee, stated outright last week that if the same bill comes to a vote on the Senate floor, she won't support it unless it contains amendments. The two Democratic lawmakers who joined her in backing the bill said similarly that an unamended bill will be a tough sell.

I will not support a final bill until it includes more transparency and a national uniform standard that works for consumers,” Klobuchar said in statement last week.

The proposal needs 60 votes in the Senate before it reaches President Barack Obama’s desk. Roberts admitted to reporters last week that he's unsure if all 54 Republican senators will back the bill, and it's not clear whether the president will support it.

Meanwhile, a Massachusetts committee advanced a bill last week that would require mandatory GMO labeling. The proposal will next be considered by the state House and Senate, where proponents say they have the support they need for passage.

Connecticut and Maine have already passed their own GMO labeling laws that will go into effect if neighboring states approve similar legislation.

Roberts’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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