As I flipped between C-SPAN2 and cable news on the night of July 7, it became clear there are no grown-ups in charge in Washington.
One channel showed horrifying images of a warlike scene in Dallas, with reports of sniper fire and several police officers down. The other channel showed our nation’s top leaders hoisting oversized photos of candy and soup cans, talking about food labels.
It was a shameful spectacle. The Senate was voting on a bill that forces food companies to furnish a mandatory GMO label on its products. The bill is the result of years of aggressive lobbying by special interests, particularly in the organic industry, because the labels will help sell non-GMO organic food by demonizing genetic engineering (a technology declared safe by every major scientific organization around the world, including the National Academies of Science in a lengthy assessment released last May).
Sadly, this was the second time in the past few months that the world’s most consequential legislative body wasted time on this inconsequential issue while America is plagued by gunfire, racial discord, and a debilitating political divide. The Senate passed the bill at the very time cops were dying and protesters were fleeing to safety. In an added flair the day before the vote, anti-GMO protestors tossed dollar bills from the balcony, screaming about Monsanto’s buying off lawmakers. This was theater of the absurd.
An entire industry depends on scaring consumers about GMOs.
Even more galling is that the bill is toothless, a hollow shell of a law. On the Senate floor that night, co-sponsor Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) admitted the issue really wasn’t about a food label at all: “There’s a lot of emotionalism. I think this issue around information and GMO labeling is really a proxy fight in many ways for those who support biotechnology and those who don’t, and those who want to debate pesticides and other important issues that don’t relate to labeling.” Yes, a proxy fight, an excuse, a substitute. Nothing of real meaning or purpose, just competing corporate interests asking Congress to referee their latest dispute.
Stabenow went on to admit the labels are “not a health-and-safety issue, but an information issue, which is why the USDA, which handles information and marketing, is where this belongs.” Let that sink in for a moment. This is about food advertising, with our elected senators acting like marketing executives. Meanwhile, back in Dallas . . .
The bill asks the USDA to set guidelines over the two years, which will keep this asinine debate alive into the next Congress. The Grocers Manufacturers Association (GMA), a major backer of the weak bill because it doesn’t require on-package labels, celebrated the Senate vote, claiming, “This strong, bipartisan Senate vote is a milestone moment in the efforts to provide consumers clear and consistent information about their food.” (No, it doesn’t).
Senators rushed to pass the bill in order to nullify Vermont’s mandatory GMO-labeling law, which took effect July 1. This raised the ire of Bernie Sanders, who supports Vermont’s labeling law, so he went on a Trumpian-like Twitter rampage. The week before the vote, he sent out 45 tweets about the GMO-labeling bill (and just one about the Dallas police officers). As a main character in the Senate spectacle of July 7, Sanders proudly set up a giant photo of a bag of M&M’s that showed how that candy now has a GMO label. (Yes, because when you buy a health food such as peanuts covered in colored chocolate and sold in a shiny plastic wrapper, you are very worried that the the sugar might be from a genetically modified sugar beet.)
Sanders urged the Senate to impose Vermont-style rules on a national scale. But what Sanders failed to say was that his state’s GMO-labeling law is a logistical nightmare, with thousands of products disappearing from store shelves in Vermont and food companies still finding their footing; Abbott, the maker of nutrition products such as Similac and the supplier of baby formula under Vermont’s welfare program, is actually hiring people to put stickers on all their products in nearly 250 stores in Vermont. Coca-Cola won’t ship many of its products to Vermont, and some kosher food is no longer available to the state’s Jewish population. Oh, but cheese and other dairy are exempt (nothing like protecting your own special interests, eh, Bernie?)
Now the House, which passed a different GMO labeling bill last summer, will vote on the Senate’s version on July 14. More wasted time, diverted attention, and misplaced priorities. (Can you hear me, Paul Ryan?) The only thing more insulting than our top legislative leaders’ voting on GMO labels is enduring a bill-signing ceremony by President Obama.
Americans are scared, sad, and confused. But not about GMO labels.
— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer in Orland Park, Ill., and a contributing author to the Genetic Literacy Project.