After years of debate, the question over whether or not US foods made with genetically-modified organisms should be labeled is finally coming to a head.
Vermont, the first state in the country enact a law requiring GMO labeling, had its new laws come into effect on July 1, prompting major food brands to change their labels nationwide. But in Congress, food industry lobbyists are pushing for federal rules that would override state-level requirements through a bipartisan bill that requires labeling but whose critics say isn't strict enough.
Whether this particular bill passes or not, it's clear that a federal decision on GMO labeling is on its way, bringing a much-awaited conclusion to one of the biggest debates in food production this country has seen.
"I don't think anybody in the food industry is opposed to being transparent."
Scientific literature has found GMO foods cause no adverse health effects, yet there is still widespread public concern over these products. Even if GMOs are perfectly safe to eat, there are other reasons consumers might want to know if their foods are GM—such as a desire to not support Monsanto, for example. There are good arguments for labeling, and even food producers are starting to get on board with the idea. But it's the specifics of which foods should be labeled, and how, that's causing ongoing debate.
Many food producers say they are fine with labeling GMO products (though some lobbyists lost a bid to prohibit labeling laws earlier this year), but want a federal structure to avoid a patchwork of different, possibly conflicting, requirements.
"Having very different labeling requirements on a state by state basis was going to be a nightmare," said Nathan Fields, the director of biotechnology and crop inputs for the National Corn Growers Association, an industry group in favor of federal legislation. "The unfortunate scenario you could see coming down the pike is other state laws coming into effect that would be in conflict with each other."
Vermont's rules are fairly comprehensive and will be enforced through fines of up to $1,000 per product for every day it is not compliant. But even Vermont's law has notable exceptions: cheese, which is often made with genetically modified enzymes called rennet, is exempt from labeling requirements, for example. A federal decision would make requirements consistent across the country, so producers wouldn't have to print a new label for every state.
But critics including the New York Times editorial board editorial board and Bernie Sanders say the bill currently being considered in the Senate (it passed a cloture vote this week and has been added as an amendment to Senate Bill 764) is too lax. Most contentious is that the bill allows producers to use QR codes that direct consumers to a website with the GMO label, rather than, y'know, an actual GMO label.
"The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public," the Times editorial reads.
The bill also does not impose any federal penalties for companies that don't comply, and isn't as comprehensive as the Vermont law. Sanders criticized it as having major "loopholes."
Fields told me producers are concerned about label requirements going beyond informative and starting to resemble a warning. For NCGA, the worry is that consumers might be turned off by the labels, prompting companies to start sourcing from non-GMO producers. Farmers who have built their whole business around GM crops would be left in the lurch.
"I don't think anybody in the food industry is opposed to being transparent," Fields said. "But we want to make sure that if you're going to go that route for transparency that it be managed and administered in a scientifically-accurate way and not used as a point of propaganda."