An Urban's Rural View

Winners and Losers in the GMO Labeling Fight

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Congress finally got around to passing what anti-GMO activists had been demanding -- a mandatory-labeling measure -- but it wasn't mandatory enough for them. The food companies, who didn't want labeling, supported the compromise bill.

Does this mean the food companies "won" and the activists "lost?" Compromises never fully satisfy anyone. Reasons for unhappiness with this one abound. Nobody got everything they bargained for.

But here are the critical questions to ask in reckoning winners and losers of a compromise: Did the parties protect their vital interests? And would a failure to reach compromise have been better or worse for them? Judged against those standards, the activists' defeat seems clear. The companies' victory looks distinctly mixed.

The bill wasn't a total defeat for the activists, to be sure. It allows USDA-certified organic food to be labeled non-GMO without undergoing a separate certification process. That's why the Organic Trade Association was the one major activist group to support the bill (…).

You could even say the activists won by forcing Congress to intervene in the dispute over genetic engineering. The state-by-state campaign they waged, culminating in the passage of a mandatory-labeling law in Vermont, forced Congress to act. The activists put the issue on the national agenda.

But can they keep it there? The new mandatory labeling law will make that harder. For in the wake of its passage the GMO-labeling question now descends into the bowels of the bureaucracy, where USDA will spend up to two years digesting it before publishing the regulations that will determine how labeling really works. Unless you're fascinated with the workings of the Administrative Procedure Act, welcome to Dullsville.

The activists think they lost when Congress allowed companies to fulfill the disclosure requirement with a symbol or a link to a cellphone app instead of requiring text on every label. For those activists who mainly care about the consumer's "right to know," this was at most a partial loss. Almost any way USDA writes the regs, many consumers will "know" much more than they do today, though whether they know anything important or useful is another question.

The bigger loss was the hit to those activists whose real interest is inflaming anti-GMO sentiment. Passage of a compromise bill robs them of a vehicle for keeping their pet issue in front of the public.

The activists would have been better off if Congress had failed to find a compromise. They could have continued to wage labeling campaigns in other states, mobilizing supporters around those initiatives. Now that Congress has acted, the federal law preempts state legislation. The activists will have to regroup.

If the activists lost, did business win? In one sense, yes. If Congress hadn't acted, Vermont's law would have taken effect July 1. That would have forced food companies to choose between labeling and selling in Vermont. It would have also thrown companies on the defensive as other states took up the labeling question and potentially exposed them to the dreaded patchwork of differing labeling requirements in different states.

What's unclear is how much the new federal law will assuage the food companies' biggest fear, losing sales. Any disclosure -- even a bar code link to a cellphone app -- has the potential to scare at least some consumers. How many, how seriously, will depend in part on how USDA writes the regulations. The law gives USDA considerable discretion.

Final score, then: The activists suffered a vital-interest defeat and would have been better off with no compromise. The companies suffered a partial vital-interest defeat but they definitely would have been worse off if there'd been no compromise.

Are there any winners in this affair? Congress, for a change, comes out looking good. Legislators overcame deep divisions, worked out a solution, swallowed hard and compromised. They demonstrated they still have the ability to get something done, whatever you think of this particular something.

Bureaucrats and lawyers, too, end up with something to cheer about -- the promise of employment. They'll stay busy writing the rules and waging the legal battles that inevitably follow in the wake of legislation these days.

Did consumers win? To conclude they did, you'd have to believe slapping "genetically engineered" or "produced with genetic engineering" on a label provides helpful information. But does it really? For most consumers the real problem with genetic engineering is not knowing enough to make an intelligent decision about it. A two- or three-word label does nothing to solve that problem.

It's hard to argue the public doesn't have a right to know what's in its food. The question is: Know what? If USDA's rule writers want what the public knows to be useful, they'll require a second statement to accompany the GE disclosure on the label. Consumers will be the real winner if it says something like, "The National Academy of Science and the American Medical Association say genetically engineered food is safe to eat."

Urban Lehner



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