How Did That Happen?

August 3rd, 2016

Cornucopia’s Take: Max Goldberg takes a look at how the toothless GMO food labeling bill came to pass.  He is a respected observer of the organic industry, writing about it regularly in his blog, Living MaxWell.


President Obama Signs the Disastrous Federal GMO-Labeling Bill, Putting the Future of Organic in Danger
Living MaxWell
by Max Goldberg

President Obama
Source: Gage Skidmore

On late Friday afternoon, President Obama signed the sham Stabenow-Roberts GMO-Labeling bill (S. 764) which will allow, among many other things, companies to use QR codes instead of clear GMO labels on a food product’s packaging.

This bill is so discriminatory and so poorly written that it potentially violates several amendments of the Constitution. Additionally, it puts the integrity of the organic seal in real jeopardy.

What is arguably the most troubling aspect of this bill is that while almost every single organic consumer organization fought this bill, the organic industry’s leading trade organization praised the bill and lobbied for it to pass.

Here are the key points to understand, in terms of analyzing the bill, what this means for the organic industry, and where we go from here.

THE BILL IS COMPLETELY AGAINST THE WISHES OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE 

Polls consistently show that 90% of Americans want GMOs to be labeled. This is irrefutable. See here, here, and here.

Yet, the bill, which does not mandate the full and easy disclosure of GMOs, easily passed through both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

This goes completely against what the American public wants. The American public wants clear GMO-labels on packaging, but politicians voted to protect major chemical and biotech corporations instead.

When President Obama pledged to label GMOs while campaigning in 2007, there is no chance that he would have found QR codes or 1-800 numbers to be acceptable alternatives.

Yet, to no one’s surprise, the President has turned his back on the organic community again, something that he has done for eight straight years. Not only did he sign this bill but his administration has rubber-stamped every new GMO application, including genetically-engineered salmon.

THE BILL POTENTIALLY VIOLATES SEVERAL AMENDMENTS OF THE CONSTITUTION

According to Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, “this is worst written bill I have seen in all of my time in Washington, D.C. There are so many flaws in this bill that it potentially violates several amendments of the Constitution.”

Perhaps, most obviously, the bill seems to be a clear violation of the 14th Amendment, as it would allow corporations to use QR codes instead of clear packaging on labels. Since nearly 100 million Americans, predominantly the elderly and low-income population, do not have smartphones, the bill is discriminatory and does not treat all citizens equal.

NO ENFORCEMENT, INTERPRETATION IS A SERIOUS CONCERN

Aside from the fact that the bill preempts any state’s food and seed labeling laws, including Vermont’s GMO-labeling law, it also does not have to go into effect for another two years, and there is zero penalty for non-compliance.

Yet, arguably, the largest concern is that so much of the bill is open to interpretation and will ultimately be decided by the Secretary of Agriculture.

Key issues to be determined:

– Will genetic engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9, which does not insert foreign DNA but simply rearranges existing genetic code, be forced to be labeled?

– Will food products that use certain genetically-modified ingredients, such as oils or high-fructose corn syrup, not have to be labeled at all?

– What will the threshold be for products labeled as “Non-GMO”?  In order for a product to currently receive the Non-GMO Project verification, it cannot contain more than 0.9% of GMOs. Finding something that is 100% GMO-free is nearly impossible because of widespread contamination.

– What exactly does the definition of “bio-engineered” mean?

The bill also calls for S. 764 to be “harmonized” with the Organic Food Production Act.  What does this mean exactly?  It is very uncertain but it is definitely not good at all.

BETRAYAL BY THE ORGANIC TRADE ASSOCIATION

In March, a federal GMO-labeling bill was rejected in the Senate. Somehow, this nearly identical bill, S. 764, just got approved a few weeks ago.

What happened between March and July?

According to Andrew Kimbrell, the support of the bill by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), who has numerous industrial food companies as members, was responsible for between 10-20 Senators changing their minds about this bill. Once passed, Laura Batcha, the OTA’s CEO, and Melissa Hughes, President of OTA’s board of directors and an executive at Organic Valley, praised the bill.

Yet, OTA’s support of this bill flies in the face of extreme opposition of the bill by almost every single organic consumer non-profit organization.

Andrew Kimbrell, who has been fighting to protect organic for more than 30 years, did not mince words when asked about the OTA.

“The OTA leadership bears a tremendous responsibility for this, and they betrayed the whole food movement. The problem is that when the OTA talks with Senators and takes a position supporting a bill, those Senators think that the OTA is speaking for the entire organic business sector and for all organic consumers. When in fact it was only a very small cadre at the top of the OTA who went rogue and decided this. Neither the OTA Board nor its members voted on this, and most were not even aware of what the upper echelon of OTA was doing. And the vast majority of organic farmer and consumer organizations vehemently opposed the DARK Act.”

“This action by OTA leadership also brings up the legitimate question of whether the industrial food companies, who now own organic, see organic as a threat to their mostly industrial products and, therefore, are using the OTA to fundamentally undermine organic. They can’t crush organic openly. But will they continue to try and change organic to fit their industrial practices rather than change their industrial practices to fit organic. “

One of the reasons that the OTA praised this bill was because the words “Non-GMO”can now be put on the labels of USDA certified organic products.

But what happens down the road if organic products are found to have very high levels of GMO-contamination, yet these products contain the label “Non-GMO” on the outside of the packaging?  And what happens if the Secretary of Agriculture declares that CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology can be used in organic?

These two things could very well happen, thanks to this new GMO-labeling bill, which the OTA pushed for. The integrity of organic will suffer tremendously and might never be viewed in the same light again.

Through its actions, the OTA, the most influential organic lobbying group in Washington, D.C., has made it very clear that it does not represent the best interests of organic consumers. And as someone who lives and breathes organic, I cannot tell you how distressing this is.

It goes without saying that members of the OTA ought to be asking themselves A LOT of very hard questions right now.

LAWSUITS WILL BE COMING

A few days ago, Food Democracy Now! sent out an email saying that it would be filing a lawsuit to block this bill.  Similarly, the Center for Food Safety told me over the weekend that it would be filing a lawsuit by mid-August. I have yet to receive an answer if these two organizations would be filing together or separately.

Despite the betrayal of the OTA and the passage of this bill, Andrew Kimbrell remains optimistic.

“The good news is that food labeling has brought the community together in a way that I never anticipated.  We have hundreds of groups sticking together and an enormous grass roots movement. It has been remarkable.”

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