The U.S. Senate is on the verge of settling the nation’s fiercest food fight: GMO labeling. And if you need an example of lawmakers, lobbyists, special interest groups, and corporations wasting time and money on a manufactured problem that is completely inconsequential to the health and welfare of the American people, look no further than this.
The fight is about whether food companies should disclose the presence of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, in their products. This applies to hundreds of ingredients, from soybean oil to vitamins to cheese. In the U.S., almost all corn, soy, and cotton crops are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides or resist pests, so any by-product of those crops would require a label. Same with canola. Sugar from sugarbeets, which produce more than half the sugar supply here and are also grown via genetically engineered seeds, would need a label. The list goes on.
No good justification for a label exists: Ingredients derived from these crops pose no health or safety concern and do not compromise the nutritional value of food. That, however, has not impressed our esteemed United States Senate, which will take a break from terrorism and trade pacts to deliberate a new label on a can of soup.
On one side of the debate are organic-food companies and environmental groups that want the labels as part of their ongoing crusade to malign the technology and boost profits. On the other side are food, agriculture, and biotech interests that don’t want labels but have done a lousy job defending themselves. Both sides have spent tens of millions of dollars in the past few years, leaving confused consumers in the middle.
The biggest dispute is over whether a label should be mandatory. On March 1, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill, sponsored by Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kans.), that would prevent states from instituting their own labeling laws. It would also direct the Department of Agriculture to draft voluntary guidelines that food companies can consult should they choose to use the meaningless label. Although the bill was voted out of committee with bipartisan support, it faces an uphill battle in the full Senate, since many Democrats want the label to be mandatory.
A competing bill introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) would require a label on gazillions of food products sold in the U.S. (even though voters in his state rejected a GMO-labeling referendum in 2014). California senator Dianne Feinstein is a co-sponsor; her state, too, voted down a GMO-labeling law, in 2012.
Merkley took to the Senate floor on March 9 to defend his bill:
Why have big government say, “We don’t trust you with the information”? And “we’re not going to allow you to know what’s in your food.” No, that should be in some dictatorship, not here in the United States of America. Big Ag says, “We don’t believe in this whole ‘we the people’ model of a republic.”
(This from a guy with a 0 percent ranking from Citizens Against Government Waste.)
The issue has even spilled over into the presidential race. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has long sought GMO labels as a way to punish one of his favorite whipping boys, seed company Monsanto. He’s tweeted several times recently in favor of the labeling bill: “Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMOs. Parents have a right to know what they’re feeding their kids.” A few years ago, Sanders proposed a mandatory GMO-labeling bill. It failed. His socialist, anti-corporate views represent the ideological backbone of the anti-GMO movement.
The organic-food industry, along with its ideological soulmates in the environmental movement, has mounted a misleading fear campaign directed at consumers.
Sanders’s home state of Vermont is the only one with a GMO-labeling law on the books, set to take effect July 1, which is why the Senate is scrambling to pass the Roberts bill. Food companies, instead of pulling unlabeled products from the shelves of Vermont grocery stores and forcing Vermonters to live with the consequences of a pointless, punitive law, have lobbied Congress to stop the law from going into effect. (The House of Representatives passed a similar bill last July.)
Unfortunately, lawmakers have little choice. The organic-food industry, along with its ideological soulmates in the environmental movement, has mounted a misleading fear campaign directed at consumers, hoping to scare them away from foods with GMOs. (Organic products cannot contain genetically modified ingredients.) Label pushers have poured millions into state referenda, all of which have failed, and lobbied for state laws across the country. One group — Just Label It, funded by Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Organic — even paraded Gwyneth Paltrow around Capitol Hill last summer to admonish moms and lawmakers about the dangers of GMOs.
They have no intention of backing down. A mandatory label would be a huge victory for the organic industry. It would also put them one step closer to their ultimate goal of eliminating genetically engineered food from our food supply. That move is potentially costly, given that new technologies that depend on genetic modification of crops and are in the pipeline could address a number of issues, from animal health to food waste to crop disease.
This is a phony issue unworthy of the Senate’s time. Instead of talking about ISIS or the economy, senators are talking about cereal boxes and saving butterflies. In this campaign environment, no issue seems too trivial to capture the attention of our political leaders.