Ag Policy Blog

Reaction Captures Essence of GMO Labeling Battle

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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WARNING: This blog item contains high levels of sarcasm. Political discretion is advised.

The long national nightmare over GMO labeling may soon be over.

Reaction could be summed up as swift and fairly predictable Thursday after leaders on the Senate Agriculture Committee released their compromise text on a bill meant to supersede any state laws over food labels on ingredients derived from biotech crops.

The legislation, which still needs to go to the Senate floor, gives companies different options for providing consumers with information. A GMO label is not mandated, but people would be able to scan a code to find out whether their food has a GMO product. So an anti-GMO mom in Burbank or someplace like that could wind up spending more money on their data charges for code-scanning than what they are paying for food. But that would apparently be the price you pay for finding out.

As his chamber headed off towards yet another vacation, House Ag Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, was a little snarky in his commentary. He applauded Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts while dissing Roberts' cohort, Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Conaway noted his chamber was nearly a year ahead of the Senate so far. Conaway said he will have to take time to review what came out of the Senate.

"I applaud the tireless efforts of Chairman Roberts to find an agreement on biotechnology labeling. It is important to note that nearly one year ago, 275 House members voted on a bill to establish a voluntary nation-wide program that would give consumers access to information about their food, protect advancements in food production and innovation, and end the patchwork of state laws threatening interstate commerce. Unfortunately, due to Senator Stabenow dragging this process out for months, Congress will not be able to act before Vermont’s mandatory labeling law goes into effect on July 1. Although the House acted in a timely manner, I have just received the text of the this agreement and will need time to review the language and the varied impacts, be they positive or negative, before stating my support or opposition," Conaway stated.

The Center for Food Safety declared Armageddon was indeed on its way because the Senate isn't seeking to put a Surgeon General's warning label on every package of corn chips. Acting in a full blaze of thoughtful maturity, the CFS designated the Senate compromise as a new fundraising tool by rebranding it the "Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act," and stating the legislation was a "tremendous blow to the food movement," according to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the group.

“This is not a labeling bill; it is a non-labeling bill. Clear, on-package GMO labeling should be mandatory to ensure all Americans equal access to product information so that they can make informed choices about what they purchase and feed their families. This kind of labeling system is inadequate and inherently discriminatory against one third of Americans who do not own smartphones, and even moreso against those in financial hardship or without access to the internet," Kimbrell said. “We are appalled that our elected officials would support keeping Americans in the dark about what is in our food and even more appalled that they would do it on behalf Big Ag. We will work to defeat this DARK Act just as we have before.”

The Center for Food Safety was somewhat justified in its response because of the full-bore enthusiasm that came from the grocery manufacturers, grain elevators, corn growers, soybean growers, dairy guys, grain elevator guys and journalists who want this thing to be over. The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food would have done itself a real service if it had come out with a lukewarm response that feinted some disenchantment over the fact that companies may have to eventually acknowledge genetic modification is a real thing. Outright exuberance over the bill only fed the beast for GMO opponents.

Sources noted disco music was heard playing at the offices of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, "Do a little dance, Make a little love, Get down tonight!" as GMA declared the Senate had achieved compromise worthy of a Mount Rushmore built out of soup cans.

“America’s food industry fully supports the disclosure provisions in this legislation. GMA members are committed to making available the product information that consumers want. We are pleased to see that the legislation enables transparency, clarity and consistency in disclosure and reflects the wide variety of ways that consumers will get this information about the foods they buy," stated Pam Bailey, president and CEO of GMA. “The disclosure requirement in the Senate legislation is consistent with the new reality: shoppers want more information about their food than is ever possible to provide on a label. That’s why GMA created the innovative SmartLabel technology initiative."

Bailey's co-chair in the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, Chuck Conner, always the statesmen, thanked the Senate while warning that the world is still a dangerous place with states still legislating.

“This agreement is now more important than ever, since the July 1 deadline for the Vermont labeling law is now a week away," said Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. "By acting now, the chaos caused by a patchwork of labeling laws and an increase in costs associated with that can be largely avoided.

“I would like to recognize Senators Roberts and Stabenow for their leadership and hard work on this issue and for developing a package which can achieve broad bipartisan support. It is imperative that the Senate take up and pass this agreement without delay and that the House follows suit in short order.”

The American Soybean Association declared full support for the bill and initiated the Soybean Action Center so that you can personally reach out to your favorite senator over this. Email early and often. https://soygrowers.com/…

The National Corn Growers Association also called for swift action. Chip Bowling, president of NCGA, said, "Congress must restore sanity to America's food labeling laws. GMOs are perfectly safe and America's farmers rely on this proven technology to protect our crops from insects, weeds and drought." Chip went overboard, however, with the next line because I know he's been in enough meetings with members of Congress to know "qualified" and "policymakers" is an oxymoron. "Important food safety and labeling decisions should be made by qualified policymakers, not political activists and campaigns."

National Farmers Union issued a statement so seemingly level-headed and practical that I'm not sure it's worth restating.

And yet, the American Farm Bureau Federation saw the word "mandatory" somewhere and said Whoa! AFBF President Zippy Duvall stressed there has never been a documented health problem from genetically engineered food and thus AFBF had to review the proposal carefully.

“We appreciate Chairman Roberts’ diligence in taking action prior to the Vermont law’s going into effect," Duvall said. "This deal clearly seeks to prevent a 50-state mismatched quilt of differing labeling standards. But the mandatory feature holds significant potential to contribute to confusion and unnecessary alarm. Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe a national, voluntary standard remains the best approach. Our board will deliver a decision soon.”

USDA sent out comments not directly attributed to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who did not comment because he is off laughing somewhere knowing he gets to hand this rule-making nightmare off to his successor. (The bill gives USDA two years to draft a rule, meaning it will be finalized sometime in 2021 and be subject to House Appropriation riders for the next decade.)

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has been asked about GMO labeling bills for 52 consecutive sessions with his weekly calls with ag reporters, offered a commentary of resigned support.

“I know this agreement wasn’t reached easily, and I appreciate the work by the Agriculture Committee leadership. The new language solves the immediate problem of a patchwork of state labeling laws, and I’ll support it. But, we must get away from a non-science based agenda driving law and rules. The science has proven that GMO foods are safe and equivalent to non-GMO foods from a safety perspective. Giving consumers a choice is a good thing, and it’s time to realize that there’s a place for all types of food in our consumer-driven economy without stigmatizing another scientifically safe alternative.”

I was going to hold this up waiting for a statement from Moms Across America, but I'm just not going to go there.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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