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Our Long, National GMO Labeling Nightmare Is Over

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Well, maybe not. But we can hope, at least, that the noise going forward will be somewhat reduced. On July 14, the U.S. House voted 306-117 to pass the “so-called” Roberts-Stabenow bill that cleared the Senate the week before by a 63-30 vote. It’s unlikely this will stop all the shouting, but against long odds, Democrats and Republicans forged a bipartisan compromise with bicameral support to quash a classic attempt at rent seeking by a special interest group, in this case strident activists advocating for organic food. The activists’ hope had been to tar and feather genetically improved foods with mandatory labels that would have signaled to consumers that any such foods are inherently suspect. But lawmakers sided instead with the overwhelming majority of scientists in the United States and around the world / who have examined the evidence and found no such thing. So this battle in the culture wars has been clearly lost by the insurgents.

The bill was designed to preempt an ill-considered Vermont law that entered into force on July 1, requiring labels on some foods (i.e., none of those important to local producers) containing so-called “GMO” ingredients. The law, immediately challenged, was so severely flawed that Vermont’s attorney general could not keep up with questions about what it meant, and enforcement was deferred until 2017. But in the few days since it entered into force, Vermont shoppers lost access to thousands of foods that manufacturers chose not to sell in the state rather than acquiesce to the burden of complying with an indefensible law that made no sense and was doomed to fall, one way or another.

The new legislation reaffirms federal authority over food labels and preempts state actions that have cost tens of millions of wasted dollars as organic campaigners fought to force governments to impose their preferences  on the rest of us until the facts won out. But the new law is far from perfect. In the end it still compels commercial speech, and mandates disclosure of a food’s so-called “GM” status even though the category itself is arbitrary, capricious, and scientifically indefensible. Such mandated disclosures have until now been reserved primarily for material information relevant to health, safety, or nutrition, and required to be presented in a manner that is accurate, informative, and not misleading. So this new legislation is an unfortunate departure from sound policy; let us hope it oils some agitated waters.

The Vermont law was written by anti-GM campaigners with no expertise and a history of making false claims. It was introduced by a state legislator who just happens to be an organic farmer, no doubt innocently and unknowingly following the organic extremists playbook to raise false food fears and denigrate competitors’ safe products. Despite such proposals being condemned by virtually every editorial board of note in the country and roundly pilloried by actual experts, the law was passed by the Vermont legislature. Despite strong legal precedents and clear federal supremacy, the court challenge dragged on, and with the judge refusing to stay implementation pending a decision, an indefensible policy—for a brief moment—became law.

The various rationales offered in its defense have all been shown to lack merit. But the question does arise as to what a defensible food labeling law relating to “GMOs” (don’t ask what they are) might look like. We offer the following as an illustration of what Vermont should have passed if it had been genuinely interested in informing and protecting consumers. Meanwhile, with the proliferation of false and misleading “Non GMO” claims, one wonders when the Food and Drug Administration will step up.

A Bill

To Protect Consumers from Deliberately Deceptive, False, and Misleading Food Labels,
And to Safeguard American Agriculture and the Environment

Whereas the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently revisited crops and foods produced through biotechnology for the 11th time, and reaffirmed once again  their safety; and

Whereas more than 275 other competent, authoritative scientific bodies worldwide have reached similar conclusions over the past three decades; and

Whereas these conclusions are based on facts, data, and analyses, repeatedly documented in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature; and

Whereas the abundant economic, environmental, and social benefits of seeds improved through biotechnology have been amply documented and demonstrated based on the experiences of more than 18 million farmers in more than 30 countries around the world; and

Whereas there has not been a single validated example of a negative consequence to the health of humans or livestock from the consumption of crops improved through biotechnology; and

Whereas the claims of alleged dangers and hypothetical safety issues repeatedly raised by vested interests opposed to biotech-improved seeds have been repeatedly and thoroughly shown to be without foundation; and

Whereas said vested interests, having failed repeatedly at the federal level, have repeatedly introduced into state legislatures provisions to mandate deceptive, misleading, and discriminatory food labels aimed at driving consumers away from foods derived from crops improved through biotechnology; and

Whereas Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, and the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetic Act clearly assign preemptive authority over food labels for all foods in interstate commerce to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and

Whereas the FDA has reaffirmed its preemptive authority over food labels; and

Whereas existing FDA policy requires food labels to convey information relevant to health, safety, and nutrition; and

Whereas existing FDA label standards require that information on food labels be accurate, informative, and not misleading; and

Whereas the terms “GMO” and “GM” are nonscientific terms, incapable of clear definition, and fundamentally and profoundly misleading in that they falsely suggest the existence of life forms that are not “genetically modified;” and

Whereas the existence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label, the Grocery Manufacturers Association “Smart Label,” the Non-GMO Project verified label, and numerous free smartphone apps provide consumers who may wish to avoid the arbitrary and intrinsically misleading category of “GM” foods with numerous options to assist them in exercising their freedom of choice;

BE IT THEREFORE ENACTED THROUGH THIS BILL that no foods may be sold in this state with a label carrying the terms “GM” or “GMO” unless they state clearly that

such foods have been shown to be safe; and

such foods have been found to deliver nutritional value equal to or greater than that provided by “non GM” foods; and

such foods have been shown to improve agricultural sustainability; and

such foods have been found to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture; and

such foods have been found to reduce or eliminate natural toxins; and

such foods have been shown to make real the vision of sustainable agriculture articulated by Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring, chapter 17, paragraph 3.

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About the author

L. Val Giddings is a senior fellow at ITIF with three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He is also president and CEO of PrometheusAB, Inc., providing consulting services on biotechnology issues to governments, multilateral organizations, and industry clients. Before founding PrometheusAB, he served eight years as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a decade as a regulatory official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Giddings received his Ph.D. in genetics and evolutionary biology from the University of Hawaii in 1980.
  • RobertWager

    Love it!