The Non-GMO Blog

GMO labeling efforts reveal the best and worst of American democracy

July 21st, 2016 by

Bribing lobbyist

State laws resulted from citizen action; national bill ignored citizens’ wishes in favor of corporate interests

In 2014, Vermont passed the first legislation in the U.S. to require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. A year earlier, Connecticut and Maine also passed GMO labeling bills though these were dependent on several other states passing similar laws.

Best of democracy: lawmakers respond to the People

Passages of these three bills were textbook examples of democracy in action. The states’ citizens lobbied their legislatures to introduce the bills, public hearings were held, experts spoke for and against the bills, and lawmakers debated the measures. The bills ultimately passed because the lawmakers recognized that the People wanted them approved.

Vermont’s bill passed overwhelmingly in both the state’s House of Representatives and Senate, and Governor Pete Shumlin signed the bill shortly thereafter.

This is how democracy is supposed to work, right? Citizens see an issue of concern that needs to be addressed, and they contact their elected representatives who respond by passing a law. This is what happened in Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine.

As Tara Cook-Littman, who spearheaded Connecticut’s labeling initiative, said: “GMO labeling is about people taking back power and getting lawmakers to take action in the interests of the people and not corporations. If we don’t use our voices it’s not democracy. We proved in Connecticut that we do have power and can make democracy work.”

Worst of democracy: lawmakers pander to corporations

Contrast those initiatives with U.S. federal government action on GMO labeling in the past year. Heavy lobbying by large food and agriculture corporations and groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association led the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce the Orwellian-named “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” The bill, dubbed the “DARK Act” (Deny Americans the Right to Know), aimed to stop Vermont and other state GMO labeling laws and establish a meaningless system of voluntary GMO labeling. The DARK Act passed the House but a similar bill failed to pass the U.S. Senate this past March mainly because the people told their senators to vote against it.

Following the Senate defeat, and with Vermont’s GMO labeling law set to take effect on July 1, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) drafted a compromise of the DARK Act, making GMO disclosure mandatory and not voluntary as in the House bill. But there was no requirement for an on-package statement as the Vermont law mandated.

Stabenow’s compromise essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for labeling supporters because many major food companies were already putting GMO labels on their products sold nationwide to comply with Vermont’s law.

The Roberts-Stabenow bill has been described as a “non-labeling GMO labeling bill” since, among its many flaws, it allows food companies to continue their stonewalling of GMO information by putting QR codes on products that can only be read by smartphones. Imagine a busy mother at a supermarket with several children in tow pulling out her smartphone to read QR codes on 20 or 30 food products. Or imagine the many mothers that don’t even have smartphones trying to get GMO information. According to marketing communications expert Peter Quinn, the use of QR codes has virtually been abandoned because they have proven to be so ineffective and a “technology wild goose chase.”

“Needs of the people have been ignored”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said: “The Stabenow-Roberts GMO bill is confusing, misleading and unenforceable. It does nothing to make sure consumers know what they’re eating.”

In contrast to Vermont’s GMO labeling bill—the Roberts-Stabenow bill had no hearings, no public input, no committee debate, and was rushed to be introduced—and passed in both the Senate and House. Behind the push were Big Food and Ag and their millions of dollars in lobbying.

So while the GMO labeling efforts in Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine demonstrated the best of democracy—working for the people as America’s founders intended—the Roberts-Stabenow bill showed us the worst of democracy—with its pandering to the narrow interests of big business at the expense of the wishes of the people. And the bill makes the successful democratic efforts in those states null and void.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) said the bill was “not what’s in the interests of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want.”

With their support for this bad piece of legislation and continued obfuscation of GMOs, Big Food and Ag have assured themselves more years of consumer distrust and targeting by advocacy groups, leading to PR disasters. A few food companies, such as Campbell’s and Dannon, have decided that transparency is the best policy, but for many others this may be a tough lesson to learn.

Published by

Ken Roseboro

Ken Roseboro

Ken Roseboro has been called “the nation’s reporter on all issues surrounding genetically modified foods” by Acres USA magazine. He has written extensively about GM foods and the non-GMO trend since 1999. Ken’s articles have appeared in leading food and agriculture publications and websites such as Civil Eats, Harvest Public Media, Prepared Foods, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Food Processing, and World Grain as well as The Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Mother Earth News, and others. He is a contributing editor to EcoWatch, Organic Connections and New Hope 360. Ken is author of Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health and The Organic Food Handbook both published by Basic Health Publications. He has spoken at many conferences including Natural Products Expo West, All Things Organic, Acres USA Conference, The Organic Farming Conference, National Heirloom Seed Expo, and others. Ken is a founding member of the Non-GMO Supply Working Group, and a member of the board of directors of the Iowa Organic Association. He appears in the award-winning documentary film, GMO OMG. In 2006, Ken received an Award of Merit from Seed Savers Exchange for his efforts to preserve genetic diversity through his publications.