Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFLA), which will prevent state governments from forcing the labeling of any food produced with genetically-modified ingredients.
The bill was approved 275 to 150 after months of substantial media attention. Opponents of the bill have nicknamed it the ‘Deny Americans the Right to Know’, or DARK, Act.
If enacted, the bill will vest the power to regulate GMO labeling with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and prevent states from enacting any legislation in the field of GMO labeling laws. GMOs, which stands for genetically modified organisms, go by a number of names, including genetically engineered foods or GE foods.
GMOs hit the food scene during the 1980s with the introduction of the Flavr Savr tomato. Since then, the debate over GMO foods has raged on with opponents underscoring potentially unknown long term side effects and proponents highlighting GMOs’ ability to help increase food production and combat pests and disease.
A number of states have considered recent measures and bills that would require companies to label products containing GMO ingredients. According to the Center for Food Safety: “To date, more than 70 bills have been introduced in over 30 states to require GE labeling or prohibiting genetically engineered foods.”
Still, only a handful of states have seen the successful passage or implementation of bills imposing GMO labeling requirements. In May 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass a law requiring products containing GMO ingredients to bear a label. After surviving a legal challenge brought by a number of food producer associations, the state started the rulemaking process to implement the bill’s provisions.
In June 2013, Maine enacted a GMO labeling law bill, but included a provision making the legislation’s enactment conditional on whether other states followed suit. According to its text, at least five other nearby states, including New Hampshire, must pass similar labeling laws before Maine’s bill can take effect. Connecticut enacted a bill containing a similar conditional approach in May 2013, waiting in limbo until a combination of Northeastern states totaling 20 million residents enact similar legislation.
SAFLA could change all that—and soon. The bill would task the USDA with creating a national standard for GMO labeling laws and a voluntary label approval system. In other words, companies that want to label their products as “GMO-Free” would still be able to do so after meeting the USDA’s requirements and obtaining approval from the USDA.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that roughly 70 percent of foods sold in grocery stores contain GMO ingredients. During the House’s debate on SAFLA, proponents of the bill argued that allowing states to impose GMO labeling laws would impose a substantial financial burden on the food industry.
“Consumers increasingly want to know more about where their food comes from and how it is produced,” Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), a member of the House Agriculture Committee told Food Safety News. “I think H.R. 1599 satisfies that demand while also recognizing what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce. The bill is a workable solution that will alleviate the potential mess of 50 states with 50 different labeling schemes,” he said.
Since the first Flavr Savr, the debate surrounding GMOs has been a heated and impassioned one. The dialogue has reached a fever pitch since the House passed the bill.
For Dr. Albert Kausch, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Plant Biotechnology Laboratory, the bill would go a long way toward ensuring uniformity in regulation of GMO labeling laws and addresses a key issue underlying the great GMO debate.
“The consumer claims that the public has a right to know what is in their food,” Kausch told AgFunderNews. “Well, I believe that’s true, but I think that a label is a poor excuse for an education. The knee jerk reaction to this is astounding because percent of Americans are against GMOs, but it’s pretty well known too that few people know what a GMO is.”
According to Kausch, a GMO involves using DNA to alter the genome of an organism by inserting that DNA in a laboratory. For many consumers, even this simplified explanation can be difficult to process. Based on this definition, Kausch finds a GMO labeling scheme incredibly problematic.
Many opponents of the legislation cite unknown long term health risks. “In over 20 years of commercial production of GMOs, there has not been a single scientifically reputable claim about human health dangers. There have actually been a lot of positive claims for environmental improvement,” said Kausch. “How long is long enough?”
“Most of your high fructose corn syrup is corn, but it’s just sugar — there’s no DNA involved. Under a labeling scheme, however, the producer would have to say it came from a GMO crop,” explains Kausch. “All your Coca-Cola, cranberry juice, and a large number of other products fall into this range.”
On the issue of whether a labeling requirement would increase costs, Kausch sees a substantial burden for food producers. “It cannot be a state issue because it would be fragmented. If you are making a product and your factory is in Texas, you have to make a label specifically for Vermont. The cost to the consumer, the grower, and the producer are huge,” he said. “Consumers want the right to know but do they want to pay for that?”
Kausch also suggests that a labeling requirement would require many producers to use separate fields, grain elevators, trucks, processing plants, and equipment in order to keep cross-contamination in check.
As the tug-of-war over GMOs continues, Kausch sees lost opportunities. “Right now, the general cost to make a GMO is somewhere between $130 to $158 million dollars per trait and it will take anywhere from six to 12 years,” he explains. “Roughly 80 percent of that cost is regulatory.” By this, Kausch means that all but 20 percent of the time and money that goes into creating a single GMO modification are spent on clearing regulatory red tape and obtaining the proper approvals. The actual technology and process of inserting DNA into a vegetable or fruit’s genome is remarkably straightforward in comparison.
Opponents argued that SAFLA prevents consumers wishing to avoid GMOs with any meaningful way to access information about the ingredients contained in the countless food items on supermarket shelves. “Ninety percent of consumers want to know if GMOs are used in their food and this bill would basically eliminate any requirement nationwide for GMO labeling,” Craig Wichner, managing director at farmland fund manager Farmland LP, recently told AgFunderNews. “We are proud of the organic crops grown on our farms and we are proud to put an organic label on it. If they’re proud of their growing methods, they should get to put a label on it and let the consumer decide.”
Even more troubling to opponents of the legislation, are provisions precluding states from enacting any laws regarding the production of GMOs. A handful of counties in Oregon and California have passed laws limiting the production of GMO crops, or gone as far as creating “GMO-free zones.”
For Wichner, who double majored in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego, the argument that GMOs are necessary to increasing global food production to stay on pace with an increasing global population is somewhat disingenuous. “Forty percent of the corn crop grown in the U.S. is turned into ethanol, so this is not at all about feeding the world,” he says. “Organic and sustainable agriculture production methods are nearly or just as productive as other systems and chemical-based systems.”
According to him, some of the consequences of monocropping and large-scale farming pose greater threats to our future food security, including top soil loss, water pollution, and environmental pollution. “If you want to talk about feeding the world, you need to talk about how you do that sustainably,” he says.
Wichner is equally unconvinced when it comes to proponents’ insistence that state-based labeling schemes will impose burdensome costs on the food producer and packaged good industries. “They do it now for different states and different countries. They have Spanish food packaging for the U.S. Market, so this is not that complicated or anything they don’t already do,” he argues. “If they think that GMO is better, and some people out there want to support this technology, they can view it as positive branding as opposed to an inaccurate characterization.”
Disagreements aside, interested parties and commentators on both sides of the great GMO labeling debate are eager to see whether the Senate will approve the bill.
Have news or tips? Email [email protected].