ACT NOW: CORPORATE POWER BLOCKING GMO FOOD LABELING

One reason large corporations succeed in influencing policies is that they are relentless. If at first they don’t succeed, they try, try again and again and again. They can do so because they have:

  • Lots of money and other resources, such as top notch lawyers, and
  • As much time as it takes, given they are around forever and policy makers, i.e., elected and appointed public officials, change over time.

Corporations pursue favorable policies in multiple venues and at the federal, state, and local levels. They work to get the policies they want from legislatures and Congress, from regulators in the executive branch, and through court cases. They lobby, they contribute to candidates, they move people back and forth between being their employees and holding positions in government, and they engage in direct spending on campaigns, often through “dark money” groups so they can remain anonymous.

A perfect and current example of this is the battle over labeling food that contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMO) such as corn, wheat, soybeans, or animals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires detailed food labeling that identifies ingredients. However, the big corporations of the food and agriculture industry have blocked any FDA requirement that food labels indicate the use of GMO ingredients. There have been bills on both sides of this issue in Congress, but they have gone nowhere – until now. But first a little background.

Various polls indicate that 70% to 93% of Americans want GMO labels. Proponents argue that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food so they can make informed decisions about what they want to eat – which is the precise reason for the FDA requirement to list ingredients. They do not argue that one should or shouldn’t eat GMO-containing food, but rather that one should have the information to make such a choice. By the way, over 60 other countries have GMO labeling laws.

Given the lack of progress on GMO labeling at the federal level, consumers who want to know if their food contains GMOs have turned their attention to requiring labeling through state laws. Ballot questions on GMO labeling were presented to voters in California in 2012, Washington State in 2013, and Colorado and Oregon in 2014. All were defeated by aggressive, expensive campaigns against them by the big food and agriculture corporations.

In California, opponents spent $46 million while proponents spent $9 million. Monsanto alone spent $8 million while DuPont, PepsiCo, Bayer, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Nestle, ConAgra Foods, and General Mills each contributed over a million dollars. (Monsanto’s stakes in the fight are huge: its GM seeds account for 80% of the corn and 93% of the soybeans grown in the U.S.) Aggressive advertising by the opponents, including the claim that GMO labeling would lead to increased food prices, was successful in undermining support for the ballot questions. Polls showed the ballot question winning by 36% in mid-September and 8% to 9% in early October, but it eventually lost 51% to 49% on Election Day in November. [1]

The Oregon vote was even closer. After polls showed it winning by 65% in June and 5% to 8% in early October, it lost by 837 votes out of 1.5 million cast (0.06%) on Election Day. Twenty-one million dollars was spent in opposition to it and $11 million in support. Opposition spending included $6 million from Monsanto, $4.5 million from DuPont, and over $1 million each from PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. [2]

In addition to ballot questions, roughly 100 bills on GMO labeling have been introduced in state legislatures in at least 29 states. Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have passed labeling laws despite industry efforts to defeat them. As is not unusual in corporations’ relentless efforts to win policy battles, the industry is threatening to file court challenges to these laws. [3]

The Vermont GMO labeling law just went into effect on July 1, so the food and agriculture industry is making a big push to get federal legislation passed to preempt it. Ostensibly, their goal is to have one national standard rather than 50 individual state standards that would be hard to comply with and potentially confusing to consumers. However, the compromise legislation in Congress seems to indicate that they have other goals.

The bipartisan bill that the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee announced last week would:

  • Ban states from requiring GMO labeling (preempting Vermont’s strong law),
  • Exempt beef, pork, poultry, and eggs from GMO labeling,
  • Exempt foods with meat as the majority ingredient from GMO labeling,
  • Narrowly define genetic engineering to exclude new techniques, and
  • Allow labeling that wouldn’t be clear to consumers, such as a symbol or a link to GMO information (e.g., a phone number, a website, or a QR code for scanning with a smart phone), as opposed to a clear, text label such as “Contains GMO ingredients.” [4]

Tellingly, the bill would not impose any penalties for violating the labeling requirement! The food and agriculture industry is supporting this compromise, of course, including Monsanto, General Mills, Campbell Soup, Kellogg, ConAgra Foods, and Mars corporations, as well as industry groups such as the American Soybean Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Senators NOW, as they may vote on this bill the week of July 5. (One of the strategies used by big corporations and their allies to win policy battles is to rush bills through the legislative process so the public and opponents don’t have time to mount opposition.) Let them know what you think of this compromise legislation. Let them know if you’d like your food clearly labeled as to whether it contains GMO ingredients, thereby allowing you to make informed consumer decisions about what you eat.

You can find contact information for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]       Ballotpedia, “California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food (2012)” (https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_37,_Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food_(2012))

[2]       Ballotpedia, “Oregon Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Initiative, Measure 92 (2014)” (https://ballotpedia.org/Oregon_Mandatory_Labeling_of_GMOs_Initiative,_Measure_92_(2014))

[3]       The Atlantic, May 2014, “Want to know if your food is genetically modified?” (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/want-to-know-if-your-food-is-genetically-modified/370812/)

[4]       Wasson, E., 6/26/16, “Bipartisan deal struck on GMO labeling,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

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