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Congress is having a messy food fight over GMO labeling

Congress is having a messy food fight over GMO labeling


The debate over requiring GMO labels is scrambling partisan lines

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Late last month, the House of Representatives delivered a blow to anyone fighting for the right to know if the food they’re buying at the neighborhood supermarket is made using genetically modified ingredients. The bill, officially known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, has been nicknamed the DARK Act by its vocal critics. It stands for "Deny Americans the Right to Know" because it would preempt states from crafting their own laws mandating GMO labeling for a vast number of American staples, including boxed cereal, sodas, chips, frozen meals, infant formulas, and much more.

The bill’s author is classically Republican: since joining Congress in 2010, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) has been pro-life, pro-business, and fiscally conservative. And with the introduction of the anti-labeling bill, eagerly backed by the corporate food industry giants, Pompeo became one of the most potentially serious threats to the Right-to-Know crowd.

What’s more surprising in a food fight as fierce as this one is that 45 House Democrats voted in favor of Pompeo’s bill. Many of them, like Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) or Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) come from low-income districts sensitive to concerns of increased food costs. Others, like Agriculture Committee members Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), have scored lucrative campaign donations totaling more than $100,000 from agribusiness interests.

It would preempt states from crafting their own laws mandating GMO labeling

Unlike other issues such as gun control or universal healthcare that fall neatly into "Red" and "Blue" territories, the divisions over GMO labeling look a lot more like a bento box, especially if you broaden the lens. On the anti-labelling side are large food corporations, farm groups, and many scientists, who worry that labeling will send a message that GM food is unsafe. (The scientific consensus is that there’s nothing inherently unsafe about GM food.) On the other side lies an eclectic but passionate mix of people who oppose industrial agriculture, have (likely misplaced) health concerns, or believe that transparency is critical when it comes to genetically modified ingredients. Just how these beliefs translate into partisan politics greatly depends on what facet of the conversation you’re examining.

Take a look at Vermont and Maine. Both states have passed GMO labeling laws. (Only Vermont’s has no contingency on nearby states passing similar laws.) The law in Vermont was introduced by a Democrat and signed into law by a Democratic governor. The law in Maine was introduced by a Republican and signed into law by a Republican governor.

The divisions over GMO labeling look a lot more like a bento box

"There are fewer extremes than the Vermont governor and the Maine governor," says Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs, Center for Food Safety which tracks state labeling efforts. "You don’t get much more conservative than [Paul LePage] the governor of Maine."

But the conversation is changing as it moves to Washington, DC.

As Jenny Hopkinson writes for Politico Pro, "Less than a year ago, an earlier version of Pompeo’s GMO labeling bill was languishing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee with just 37 co-sponsors and had few prospects for gaining traction." Last week, the House passed it 275-150.

"At the federal level it has become quite partisan. People pursuing federal legislation tend to be Republicans. In the states where there have been attempts at GMO labeling, it’s generally being pushed by Democrats," says William Hallman, professor of human ecology in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

The conversation is changing as it moves to Washington, DC

Pompeo’s bill will move to the Senate after the August break, but so far, only Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) is working on a companion bill, one he says is still far from ready, and no Democrat has stepped up to say they will lead the issue. Another wrinkle is the passage of a Senate-side amendment to label GMO salmon attached to a spending bill for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration by Congresswoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

When the issue reaches the broader consumer level, so far, there is no evidence of a partisan divide, says Hallman, who has been conducting surveys on GMO perceptions since 1995, the year after the first genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato was approved for human consumption.

A number of surveys show that consumers overwhelmingly support GMO labeling, but Hallman says there’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Most polls don’t give the option of saying "I don’t know" when asked about support for labeling, and few consumers will say they don’t want more information. In fact, Hallman’s own survey shows most Americans aren’t even part of the conversation.

"Two-thirds of them have never had a conversation about GMOs in their life, and 25 percent have never heard of GMOs. Over 60 percent have no idea there are GMO products in the supermarket right now. It’s really not high on the issue agenda for most people," he says.

"It’s really not high on the issue agenda for most people."

That’s in stark contrast to the message from pro-GMO labeling groups like the Environmental Working Group who say GMO labeling is practically more popular with Americans than apple pie. There’s no doubt those engaged in the issue are very engaged, but Hallman says they’re a relatively small part of the population.

But as the conversation gets picked up by national politicians with bigger megaphones, there’s a chance that observers will fall into line behind leaders who share their party affiliations. For consumers, that means their stance on GMO labeling may come down to who they identify with most as they filter facts.

"Research shows that the way people interpret science and facts is through their own value system and political beliefs. The facts they look for are shaped by the value systems they already hold," says Carmen Bain a sociologist at Iowa State University who studies global agrifood systems. "Science can’t resolve this. If people are already suspicious about the food system, telling them GMOs are safe isn’t going to help."

"If people are already suspicious about the food system, telling them GMOs are safe isn’t going to help."

What’s unusual in this GMO labeling feud is that the arguments for and against aren’t falling where you would typically expect them to land.

Those opposed to labeling efforts typically rehash arguments in favor of GMOs themselves: science has shown GMOs are healthy and safe; GMOs have the potential to be environmentally friendly, at least the ones that require less pesticides and produce higher yields; GMOs could require less land and water to produce, lowering prices and helping feed a growing population. A patchwork of state-level labeling laws would increase food costs, anti-labelers say, especially for the poor. And among an ill-informed public, the argument goes, any label would be interpreted as a warning.

Organizations in favor of labeling — like the Center for Food Safety, Environmental Working Group, and JustLabelIt — have their own counterpoints to each of those: they say that genetically modified food hasn’t been sufficiently tested; that pesticide reductions and higher yields can be obtained through organic farming practices; and that the public has a right to know when they are consuming ingredients that have been modified. Though these groups tend to be left-leaning, arguments in favor of lower food costs, a lighter environmental footprint and science-supported opinions surprisingly don’t make up the core of the pro-labelers stance. To them, the fight over GMO labeling is foremost about transparency in the food supply.

"It’s about transparency."

"This is a funny issue. If you think it’s about technology, you’re missing the bigger dynamic," says Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs, Environmental Working Group. "It’s about transparency."

Ultimately, there’s a lot riding on the outcome of America’s GMO labeling debate. It’s important to farm organizations, food production and trade, and to food retailers.

"There are important political and economic stakes on the line," says Bain.

As agriculture corporations push for an anti-labeling bill, another set of corporations are moving ahead with labeling initiatives of their own. Popular ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s spent much of last year transitioning away from GMO ingredients. Chipotle banished GMO ingredients from its food menu this spring caused a media frenzy. And some surprising brand names are making the shift including traditional Cheerios, Hershey’s Kisses, Hellman’s, and Grape Nuts. Make no mistake, the parent companies of these brands, including General Mills, Unilever, and Post, are in fact supportive of genetically modified crops, and according to a report out today, are among companies that have spent $51 million since January on lobbying efforts to keep GMO labeling voluntary. At the same time, the move to create new non-GMO products is a sign they’re catering to customers who have concerns. Voluntarily adding a "GMO Free" label on these products is a potentially lucrative marketing strategy.

Another set of corporations are moving ahead with labeling initiatives of their own

Whole Foods may be the most compelling catalyst. The natural foods giant has committed to full GMO transparency by 2018, a move that’s rippled through its supply chains and has many suppliers from artisan cheesemakers to meat suppliers and snack makers moving to reformulate products. According to Whole Foods, organic and non-GMO verified products are two of the fastest growing categories in their grocery department.

"People have termed this ‘From Government to Governance,’" says Bain. "The trend of less government intervention and letting the issues be resolved in the marketplace, and we’re definitely seeing this."

However Pompeo’s law shakes out in the Senate, with retailers and food makers playing both sides of the issue — the result will likely be a bevy of GMO-free labeled products for consumers to choose from.