Truth in Labeling Finally Moving Forward

July 31,2015
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For most of the past 20 years that genetically modified crops have been cultivated in the U.S., their use has progressed with all the excitement of watching corn grow.  In recent years, however, the verdant presence of bioengineered crops has drawn fear-mongering and undeserved scrutiny across the food chain.  The pressure has fueled efforts in some states to force GMO cultivation bans, or mandatory food labels that threaten farming practices which are demonstrably beneficial to the environment and to society.

Fortunately, the U.S. Congress has finally begun stepping in to provide some clarity on the labeling of foods that do – or do not – contain genetically-modified ingredients.  In late July, the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Affordable Food Act.  This legislation, designated H.R. 1599, would establish a national, uniform standard so consumers who want to purchase food without GM ingredients can be confident in what they are eating.  Those companies that want to assert that their ingredient supply chain is GMO-free will have a process to vouchsafe those claims, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  This national GMO-free certification program, modeled on the National Organic Program, will give consumers who prefer to buy non-GMO foods a transparent, consistent means of doing so. 

Just as importantly, a new federal standard for GMO absence claims will prevent the sprouting of state labeling mandates, similar to what happened last year in Vermont.  H.R. 1599 ensures one national standard for food labeling, keeping consumers informed rather than misled.  It’s similar to what the dairy industry has done for the past 20 years in following federal guidance on which label claims are allowed regarding milk from farms that do not use recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). 

The vocal critics of GMO – and they are nothing if not loud and organized – assert that GMO use should require mandatory labeling.  But decades of scientific research and hundreds of studies have found no difference in the products containing GMO processes or ingredients.  Food labels are intended to quantify nutritional information, and qualify the safety of the product.  Because there are no nutritional differences in GM ingredients, and absolutely no food safety issues, mandating labeling of genetically modified foods is not relevant to these key criteria.

The Safe and Affordable Food Act does need further modification as the Senate begins consideration of a similar measure.  The House version would not allow livestock products to display a “GMO-free” claim if the cattle, pigs or poultry were fed GMO grains.  Where the science is clear that there is nothing genetically modified in foods like milk or meat, there is no reason to use a new federal labeling law to create potentially stigmatizing discrepancies between foods.

The anti-biotech bandwagon has subtly shifted its criticisms in the past year.  Initially, their strategy was to raise questions about the safety of the crops, and the resulting grains and oilseeds. While this tact successfully created groundless fears among some consumers, the science has been unequivocally clear that food safety is not an issue with GMOs.  Now, the critics are scrambling for a new message. Apparently the latest strategy is to criticize the role of the herbicide glyphosate in controlling weeds in fields planted with GMO seeds.  This is also a disingenuous line of attack, since glyphosate (Roundup) – a product found in millions of suburban garages and tool sheds across America – is far more benign than many other weed killers that were in use long before the adoption of GMO seeds, and are still being used today.  

The reality is GMO seeds help farmers use fewer chemicals, water and fuel, and allow more crops to be harvested without plowing over additional acres of land. Those who don’t see or appreciate these benefits are entitled to remain opposed to GMO crops, but they are not entitled to subvert longstanding food policy to mandate labeling of what amounts to a distinction without a difference. The creation of a new voluntary labeling standard for GMO claims is the appropriate compromise approach to this issue.  Hopefully, the Senate will finally make it a reality.