Organic Industry at Odds Over National GMO Labeling Bill
Congress has finally agreed on a national GMO labeling law, but anger and upset is raging across the country from those who feel the law’s framers betrayed the American consumer.
For years, the overwhelming majority of Americans have responded consistently in polls that they want to know if their food contains genetically modified organisms, meaning if it’s grown from seed that has been genetically altered in a lab setting. Over 60 countries already require labels, or restrict GMOs.
Congress passed bill S.764 on July 14 with strong bipartisan support, after it cleared a challenging Senate subcommittee to be passed by the Senate (63–30), and without amendment in the House (306–117). The White House has indicated the president will sign the bill.
The bipartisan agreement came just two weeks after Vermont’s widely heralded GMO labeling law went into effect on July 1. At least 30 states, including New York, New Jersey, and Florida, have introduced legislation, and Connecticut and Maine passed legislation, according to EcoWatch.
The millions of campaigners and supporters who supported labeling in these states played a critical role in forcing Congress to take up this issue. It is not something the industry wanted. According to public records compiled by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, opponents spent $105.8 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon between 2012 and 2014.
The intent to avoid a patchwork of state laws was noted by many supporters of the food industry-backed draft legislation. In the end, the national law, if signed by the president, would invalidate all state GMO labeling laws, including GMO seed labeling laws, and force Americans to accept a GMO disclosure that is much weaker.
Groups are now organizing nationwide calling for a presidential veto. A letter signed by 268 organizations was sent to the president July 15, and at least 250,000 petition signatures calling for a veto are expected to be delivered to the White House on July 22. Vermont senator and former Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders had previously vowed to “do everything I can to defeat this terrible GMO bill.”
Those who oppose the draft legislation say it contains huge loopholes that could allow up to 90 percent of GMOs to escape the labeling requirement, depending on how the USDA decides to interpret it, and it fails to impose federal penalties for violating the law.
The allowance for disclosure using QR codes, where consumers would need to “scan for more information,” rather than a printed statement, has led outraged Americans to refer to the legislation as a “non-labeling law.”
The organic industry has long been a strong advocate for GMO labeling, but the largest trade group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), ultimately supported the bill, in the process angering a number of its members who felt betrayed.
The rift highlights the different points of view, and competing interests, between some of the larger organic companies—some of which are owned by large food companies—and the thousands of small organizations, farmers, and brands that constitute the grassroots element of the organic movement.
The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), which is known for having once sued the largest U.S.-owned GMO seed company, Monsanto, said in a statement it believed the OTA’s support was critical to the success of the national bill.
In the Senate, where much of the difficult work was done, the measure was able to overcome a Democratic filibuster with just four votes. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Democrat who previously opposed the Senate bill, but ultimately co-authored the legislation, worked closely with OTA and other organic industry executives.
These include Walter Robb, who is co-CEO of Whole Foods, Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the board for Just Label It, and representatives of organic brands owned by large corporations who are members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), according to Politico. All groups praised the final draft legislation.
“It’s clear that the Organic Trade Association has come under the control of a small group of lobbyists controlled by giant-food corporations that also own organic brands,” wrote OSGATA president Jim Gerritsen in a statement.
He called out the OTA for what he called “duplicity toward organic farmers and consumers,” and said, “Biotech giant Monsanto is universally recognized within the Organic Community as organic’s greatest threat.”
His group then resigned its membership in the OTA, and called on other “honest organic companies and organizations to do the same.”
The Organic Brand
Certified organic products are bound by law to exclude GMOs. This, and the perception that organic is a healthier choice, has helped the industry prosper in recent years as the conventional food industry has shrunk.
According to a Financial Times report quoting Boston Consultancy Group, $18 billion in sales have shifted from large packaged goods companies to smaller businesses (less then $5 billion in annual revenues), between 2011 and 2015.
This translates to about a 4 percent loss in market share for the top 10 branded processed-food companies, such as Kraft, Heinz, General Mills, and Kellogg, according to Rabobank, quoted by food industry news site Food Navigator.
To bolster their growth, many of these large companies have acquired organic and natural food brands, such as General Mills’ acquisition of Annie’s Homegrown, and Hormel’s acquisition of Applegate Farms. “Surprisingly few major corporate agribusinesses note ownership ties on their acquisitions’ product labels,” notes the Cornucopia Institute.
Many Americans associate organic food with being healthier and better for the environment than conventional food and processing methods, and so far, consumers have been willing to pay the premium price.
This higher retail price affords better economic opportunities to producers, manufacturers, and sellers of these products, including small players that can only survive because of the higher retail prices.
GM ingredients can be found in about 70 percent of grocery store products, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Farmers use GE seed to grow the vast majority of corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets in the United States.
In 2008, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 53 percent of consumers would not buy food that has been genetically modified.
Forcing conventional food companies to label their GM ingredients would give more value to the organic brand in the eyes of consumers, and it would be a big win for the organic industry.
But for many organic industry supporters, labeling GMOs is even more about respect for the consumers right to transparency, protecting the environment, and personal health.
OTA Explains Its Support
The OTA was clearly aware its decision would face some opposition.
“Many impassioned activists, and a few OTA members, that have long contributed to this fight are dismayed by OTA’s choice to support the bill,” wrote OTA’s leadership in a letter to its members the day the legislation passed the House.
OTA explained the compromise bill was happening with, or without them, so they moved to get the best they could, which was to “protect the core value of the organic label.”
The bill, it said, protects the organic industry’s right to make a non-GMO claim, and it prevents conventional products that would be exempt from GMO labeling requirements under the draft legislation, such as milk from cows produced with GMO feed, from being able to claim non-GMO status.
OTA acknowledges the main flaw of the bill, that GMO disclosures will be hidden behind electronic codes that require a smartphone and internet access, but it encourages its members “to look beyond the obvious outrage and dig into the facts.”
“If the food movement chooses strife over progress and punishes alternate views held by those dedicated to the same objectives, we’ve already lost,” it states.
Many who oppose the GMO labeling bill call it a non-labeling bill, because it would allow manufacturers to use QR codes on packages, rather than a written disclosure.
Others, including the non-profit Center for Food Safety, refer to it as the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 68 percent of Americans own smartphones, which could deny millions of Americans the ability to access the information.
The QR code also requires an app to decode it, suggesting only the most technologically savvy and concerned consumer will take the time to look.
The industry has already developed a platform for QR codes, called SmartLabel, which is already in use for 1,150 products. The digital label discloses GMO content in general terms.
A GMO disclosure for General Mills Chex Clusters Cereal Fruit Oats, which requires two clicks to navigate and find online, states: “This product includes ingredients sourced from genetically engineered (GE) crops, commonly known as GMOs.”
GMO Myths and Truths
The QR codes printed on food packages will not mention GMOs at all. The electronic code is nonsense to look at, and a simple message printed below it will only invite consumers to scan for more information.
This is deliberate, and a win for industry stakeholders, as many who supported the decision were concerned about giving the impression to consumers that GMOs are unsafe, or carry a health risk.
“It is the right solution to increase disclosure of information that consumers are seeking without stigmatizing a safe technology that feeds a hungry and growing world,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in a statement.
Many of the bill’s supporters assert there is no evidence to support widespread public concerns about GMOs in the food system, and they point to the general consensus among mainstream scientists that GMOs are safe.
In fact, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., affiliated with UC-Davis, told Congress in 2015 that a meta analysis of 1,700 studies (about a third conducted without industry funding), all concluded that GMOs pose “no unique risks,” according to a C-Span video compilation posted by Coalition For Safe Affordable Food.
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the FDA, also say GMOs are safe.
There are scientists who believe otherwise. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine explains that most studies on the health risks of GMOs are done using a “substantial equivalence test” that tends to result in a finding that GMO foods are safe.
However, Academy scientists say there are enough animal studies that indicate serious health risks to warrant avoiding GM foods. These studies indicate more than a causal association between GM foods and health risks, according to the group’s website. Dangers cited include infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and many more.
In fact, a majority of Americans, and many non-Americans, feel uneasy about the technology.
More than 60 countries, including Australia, Japan, and those in the European Union, have restrictions or bans on the sale and production of GMOs, according to the non-profit Non-GMO Project, which offers third party non-GMO accreditation in the United States.
In terms of the cultivation of GM crops, the American invention is widespread only in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil. Collectively, the four countries account for 90 percent of all GMOs grown in the world, according to Scientific American.
Opposition to GMOs is often based on environmental concerns linked to herbicide or pesticide use, contamination of organic crops with patented GMO seed, potential health risks from the consumption of GMOs, and concerns about the ethics of patenting genetic material.
A 330-page document, “GMO Myths and Truths,” made available through the Non-GMO Project, covers the concerns extensively.