GMO Labeling in Congress not a compromise? Think again.

Jul 7, 2016

Last night the U.S. Senate passed the bi-partisan Senate Bill 764, the GMO labeling compromise led by Agriculture Committee Chairman Senator Pat Roberts (R) and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D). The bill attempts to create a national standard for GMO labeling that pre-empts the effort made by states enacting their own versions of a GMO labeling law. Having 50 different state labeling laws is infeasible and impractical for the agriculture and food industries.

Vermont’s GMO labeling law, that went into effect last week, triggered the push for passing a national standard to prevent a messy "patchwork" of GMO legislation. Had Connecticut, Maine, and now Vermont voted down GMO labeling measures (like Washington state did with Initiative 522 in 2013) in favor of consumer-driven market choices there would be no need for Senate Bill 764.

Consumers concerned or wanting awareness about GMO products could continue to choose products that were voluntarily labeled. Demand for GMO-labeled products would naturally drive companies to offer more options meeting these requests, similar to how the gluten-free, organic and natural markets have boomed. Food retailers like Whole Foods have already stepped up and voluntarily labeled GMOs in all stores. Others have yet to follow suit, but previous to Senate Bill 764 it was a company’s choice to risk not capturing market share driven by GMO labeling.

This bi-partisan bill has done what all good compromises do - both sides are unhappy but both got some of what they want. Agriculture groups and companies got behind Senate Bill 764, in order to shield the industry from costs accrued due to differing GMO labeling laws in each state. Previous efforts to stop the labeling of GMO products (like ‘The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015’ that cleared the House in 2015 but failed in the Senate) are a historic daydream for ag parties wanting to promote consumer choice, market independence and low food costs.

Instead, Senate Bill 764 mandates federal labeling of any genetically modified ingredients in products at grocery stores through three options: text statement, symbol, or Quick Response (QR) code. Other opponents of Senate Bill 764 who are in favor of state-mandated labeling or stricter federal requirements argue the three choices are vague and consumers will be confused or miss the labels.

“Clear” labels on GMOs might actually create more consumer confusion. Numerous studies show consumers don’t understand what GMOs are or how they are different from other genetically modified crops. Put simply, “clear” GMO labels are still misleading and misinform consumers.

Neither side is happy but an option has been presented that has both sides of the aisle finally cooperating on this issue. The Senate has passed the bill and we will see if the House will agree with this less-than-ideal but short-term solution, instead of continuing to stand by more states vote against consumer-driven markets.