U.S. Senate Debates GMO Labeling

U.S. SENATE DEBATES GMO LABELING

The movement to label food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has swept the nation, as advocates propose strict new regulations on food producers and opponents warn of the consequences of creating labels which misleadingly imply that biotechnology is harmful.

This debate has now pushed to the forefront of Congress’s attention. On March 1st, a bill to prevent states from instituting their own GMO labeling laws was introduced in the Senate Agriculture Committee by Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas). The new legislation is in response to a Vermont law passed in 2014 which would require a label on products containing GMOs, and which takes effect at the beginning of July.

Not only would this legislation prevent any state from issuing laws on the matter, it would also authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a national voluntary labeling standard for genetically modified, or bioengineered, food.

As the bill states:

“No state or a political subdivision of a state may directly or indirectly establish … or continue in effect as to any food or seed in interstate commerce any requirement relating to the labeling of whether a food … or seed is genetically engineered.”

The bill will be hotly debated in Washington, D.C. On one side of the issue are environmental and food activists who feel this information should be transparent to the American public. On the flip side, modern agriculture supporters believe that these labels will drive up food costs and unfairly cast a spotlight of doubt on GMO safety.

As we explain on our website under ‘Dangerous Myths’, it is faulty to assume that labels would have no negative effect on public perception of genetically modified foods:

“What it comes down to is a sense of perceived safety. Psychologically, if you perceive a product to be safer than another, you’re more likely to choose the safer option. By labeling GM products, you imply to potential consumers that genetically modified foods are deserving of such labels because they may be detrimental to one’s health.
It’s a Catch-22: Consumers believe that if the agriculture industry fights against labeling laws, they must have something to hide. But as soon as the agriculture industry is forced to label genetically modified foods, the public believes that the label is necessary to distinguish bad from good.”

Biotechnology has the support of the scientific community. According to Pew Research, 88% of U.S. scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) say that GM foods are generally safe. Unfortunately, there is an extreme gap between them and the general public, as only 37% U.S. adults agree about GM food safety.

In addition to our physical well-being, we must also address what the potential economic costs would be. According to a 2014 Cornell University study, if GMO labeling was implemented in New York, the added grocery cost per year for a family of four could jump almost $500. The study found that demand for non-GMO products would grow partly due to labeling being seen as a warning. Companies would need to purchase non-GMO ingredients to remain competitive with their counterparts, and that increased cost would be passed on to consumers.

As Senator Pat Roberts sees it, this issue is one that we should regulate on a national level to benefit all consumers and producers in the best way possible. He states that, “It is clear that what we’re facing today is not a safety or health issue. It is a market issue. This is really a conversation about a few states dictating to every state the way food moves from farmers to consumers in the value chain. We have a responsibility to ensure that the national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.”

The big question is whether a compromise can be reached on this divisive subject. Is there a middle ground in which the public is aware of the instances in which biotechnology is used in our food, but not at the expense of costly labeling measures which mostly serve to benefit organic food companies?

Perhaps this proposed bill will be the first part of that answer. It would prevent the chaos that would ensue if every state has its own approach to labeling, instead creating a standard which doesn’t disrupt supply chains, the food industry, production, or any other segment of society.

The second step is education. We must continue to raise public awareness about genetically modified food and the benefits of biotechnology to producing more food on less land for a growing world population. It is a more sustainable method of food production that leads to greater resistance to pests and diseases, longer shelf life, and higher yields. We owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to explore and employ these safe, productive practices.

In the meantime, we will continue to follow this bill’s journey in Congress. Some project that it could be voted on as soon as this week in the Senate.

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