Nearly 90% of Americans say genetically engineered food should be labeled, with high support across all ages, races and political affiliations, according to a December 2015 Mellman Group poll. It's hard to think of a political issue that shares such broad appeal. Belief in our right to know what's in our food is as American as apple pie.
Now, after a hard-fought battle led by millions of consumers and the nation's largest environmental, health and consumer groups, we are winning that right. Large food companies from General Mills to Kellogg to Campbell's have said they are putting labels on food products to indicate if they are produced with genetic engineering.
Is it possible to undo this progress? Could the new food labels actually roll back to the factories to be replaced by incomprehensible black blobs called QR codes?
Are Senate Democrats, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, about to make a deal that will stop GMO labeling in its tracks?
The agrichemical industry is swarming the U.S. Senate right now with a last-ditch lobbying effort to pass the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, and thereby nullify state labeling efforts. They have just a few weeks left to get this done before Vermont implements the nation's first mandatory GMO labeling law July 1.
The House of Representatives passed the DARK Act last year. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said at the time in a CNN op ed, "The fact that Congress is even considering a proposal to deny Americans basic information about their food speaks to overwhelming power of these corporate lobbyists over the public interest."
All eyes are now on Sen. Stabenow, who, according to the Hagstrom Report, just proposed new language for a "compromise." This may or may not include QR codes, an 800 number, or some other way of claiming "mandatory" labeling while allowing food companies to remove the words "genetic engineering" from the new labels that are already on their way to a store near you.
Details on the compromise are murky. But one thing is clear: as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Stabenow holds the keys to decide whether or not Americans will finally get clear, on-package GMO labels that are already required in 64 other countries around the world.
Both sides are doing their best to influence her. As Politico reported, organic industry leaders held a fundraiser for Sen. Stabenow in March, just days before the last vote on the DARK Act, and organic industry leaders donated several thousand dollars to her campaign in 2015 and 2016.
A review of Federal Election Commission filings for donations to Sen. Stabenow's campaign from corporations and trade groups over the past five years found little from the organic industry - just one donation from the Organic Trade Association in 2012 for $2,500.
Big food, chemical and agribusiness groups, meanwhile, donated well over $100,000 to her campaign in that time period, including a combined $60,000 from Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Bayer and ConAgra.
Those corporations were among the top 10 donors to anti-labeling campaigns that spent over $100 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Washington, Oregon and California - using dirty tricks to do so, such as mailers from fake front groups, false claims in ads and voter guides, and the largest money laundering operation in Washington State election history.
Why are these companies so afraid to give Americans an informed choice about GMOs in our food?
Big agribusiness groups are sending the message that it's none of our business what's in our food and how it's produced. Political cartoonist Rick Friday learned that lesson the hard way when he was recently fired from his job of 21 years at Iowa's Farm News for pointing out in a cartoon that top executives at Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere made more money last year than 2,129 Iowa farmers.
What else don't these companies want us to know about our food?
The fact is, most genetically engineered crops are engineered to survive chemical herbicides, which is good for chemical company profits but not so good for farmers and families in GMO-growing communities such as Hawaii, Argentina and Iowa - or for the rest of us who may be eating food every day that contains glyphosate, which was recently classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization's cancer panel.
The good news is, consumer demand for transparency is now too loud to ignore.
State drives for GMO labeling succeeded in educating millions of people that our most important food crops have been genetically engineered with no transparency. Vermont's labeling law is a victory for the nation and food companies are already well on their way to labeling GMOs for the first time in the U.S. history.
If the agrichemical lobby succeeds in pushing Democrats to accept a Dark Act deal that involves anything less than mandatory on-package labeling, Sen. Stabenow will be forever remembered for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for our right to know what's in our food.