Last week the U.S. Senate voted on an amendment supporting the rights of states to enact their own laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Offered by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) to the Senate Farm Bill, the amendment failed 73-26. As expected, the defeat set off a barrage of speculation and forecasting on the future of GE labeling. However, before the tea leaf reading on the amendment goes any further, let’s review what this vote actually means for state GE labeling.
What is the problem?
Absent clear labeling of GE foods, consumers are deprived of necessary and important information about the foods they are purchasing. In the absence of federal leadership on GE labeling, dozens of U.S. states have introduced legislation that would require the labeling of GE foods sold in their state. However, fear-mongering and threats of lawsuits by the biotech (read: chemical) industry as well as unmatched corporate spending has intimidated states from moving forward to pass state labeling legislation and caused overall consumer confusion.
What was the goal of the Sanders amendment?
Earlier this year, Monsanto and the biotech industry’s campaign of misinformation sidelined labeling bills in Washington, Vermont and Connecticut before final votes could occur. Reeling from the threat of potential lawsuits, the Sanders-Boxer-Begich amendment sought to reaffirm the existing authority that states have to require labeling.
What did the Sanders amendment include?
Included in the findings section, the authors affirmed that, “States have the authority to require the labeling of foods produced through genetic engineering or derived from organisms that have been genetically engineered.” This statement would not have changed states’ authority on labeling, because there is no need to do so. States already have all the authority they need to require labeling. Instead, the amendment sought to reaffirm states’ existing authority and quell misleading claims to the contrary. Additionally, the amendment would have required the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to compile a report for Congress detailing the percentage of foods and beverages sold in America that contain GE ingredients. Such a report would have provided further data showing the need for labeling.
Will this defeat have an impact on the ability of states to pass labeling legislation? No.
As mentioned above, the amendment’s authors sought only to affirm that states already have existing authority to require labels on GE food, not to grant new authority to do so. States always have to consider interplay with Federal law when crafting legislation in many areas, including labeling. While the effort was ultimately defeated, the chemical industry was only able to trot out the same old tired arguments in challenge state labeling bills -- an encouraging sign.
Does this defeat mean there is little Congressional support for labeling? No.
The relatively small number of votes can be attributed to a number of factors, including the spread of misinformation about the false risks of food labeling and agribusiness influence. Widespread industry influence has sought to shift the discussion from a fundamental public right-to-know issue to an anti-agriculture issue, making it extremely polarizing on Capitol Hill. Even Senators with strong histories of supporting individual state rights, like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), voted against the measure -- indicating that the debate shifted beyond the parameters of the amendment.
Does this mean that Congress doesn’t support state labeling? No.
A positive aspect of the story is the full turnout by Senators from many states that have introduced strong labeling bills, including Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. And while some have read into the outcome of this vote as a major setback for the sustainable agriculture community, including food safety, farmer, environmental and consumer advocacy groups, others are viewing it as a vote of confidence and welcome news for states preparing to move forward with GE food labeling in their state.
The following is a list of U.S. Senators who voted in favor of the labeling amendment.
If your Senator is not on this list, contact them and tell them to support GE labeling measures in the future.