Jun 27 2016

Senate Passes GMO Labeling Compromise

“You’re unhappy. I’m unhappy too. Have you heard of Henry Clay? He was the Great Compromiser. A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied, and I think that’s what we have here.”

– Larry DavidGMO_labeling-thumb

Senate Democrats and Republicans have reached a compromise on the issue of mandatory GMO labels. I am not happy with the outcome, but it could have been worse. Apparently pro-labeling advocates are unhappy too.

Last year the House passed a bill that would preempt mandatory labels. That bill stated:

(Sec. 101) This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue the voluntary consultation process established under the FDA’s “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties.” In that process, the FDA evaluates a scientific and regulatory assessment provided by the developer of a food produced from, containing, or consisting of a plant that is a genetically engineered organism (GMO).

The FDA may require a GMO food to have a label that informs consumers of a material difference between the GMO food and a comparable food if the disclosure is necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading. The use of a GMO does not, by itself, constitute a material difference.

This was a reasonable bill, which acknowledges that the way a food is produced saying nothing directly about the safety or other properties of the end product.  A GMO can be perfectly safe, and a non-GMO can be unsafe.

The purpose of the House bill was to prevent a patchwork of state mandatory labeling laws from coming into effect, starting with Vermont’s law on July 1. That would be a nightmare for industry, which would have to comply with various competing state laws. In essence, Vermont’s law (which would also trigger similar laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut) forced the federal government’s hands.

That bill, however, stalled in the Senate who did not pass it and failed to reach a compromise version. The new Senate bill replaces the House bill, and is very different. It must now go to the House.

The Senate bill requires mandatory labeling of food that contains GMOs, but it gives the FDA 2 years to write the specific requirements. Perhaps more importantly the bill allows for the use of a text label, an image, or an electronic label. An electronic label would have to be read with an app on a smartphone.

Labeling proponents, like Bernie Sanders, are unhappy with these provisions. The now influential senator promises to fight this new Bill.

I have mixed feelings about the Senate compromise, which I guess means it was a fair compromise. However, I feel that reason is compromising with nonsense, which isn’t a good result.

First let me state that I am firmly in the anti-labeling camp. “GMO” is not a precise term, as there is a variety of methods that can be used to alter the genetics of food crops. Drawing an arbitrary line and declaring everything on one side of it a GMO is arbitrary and unscientific.

Of course, all methods of developing new cultivars modify the genome. This does not mean they are all equivalent, but let’s take a look at some of those methods:

There is traditional breeding and selection, which is very slow but can powerfully transform organisms given enough time. Modern methods speed up the process, including forced hybridization, mutation farming, cisgenic modification, transgenic modification, and gene silencing.

Mutation farming, using chemicals or radiation to speed of the rate of random mutations and then selecting the tiny percentage that may be beneficial, does not sound inherently safer than inserting one known gene. Forced hybridization of unrelated species has massive and unpredictable effects on the genome. Why are these methods “organic” and “natural” while precisely turning off one gene is “frankenfood”?

Further, GMOs currently on the market are all perfectly safe, and we have a reasonable regulatory structure in place to evaluate future GMOs prior to market.

The reason GMOs are unfairly and unscientifically targeted is because the organic food industry has chosen to demonize them to enhance their own brand. Mandatory labeling is part of that strategy. The biggest proponents of labeling don’t care about consumer choice; the labeling initiative is part of an admitted strategy to ultimately ban GM technology in agriculture.

We will have to wait and see if the new Senate bill passes into law, and if it does what the effects will be. Some argue it will ultimately be a good thing, by removing the labeling issue from anti-GMO protests. I think that position is naive. Others warn that it will be costly and disruptive to the food industry, raising the price of food generally.

Jon Entine and Bruce Chassy convincingly argue that it will be a disaster:

As we explain below, they would have to create separate handling and processing facilities, cope with increased cost of ingredients, formulate new products, fight for scarce space on supermarket shelves, and hope that they have made the right choices so they will be able to sell their products to a confused and skeptical public.

We have already seen this with the sugar industry. Sugar beet farmers started using GMO sugar beets because they use fewer pesticides and are therefore safer for the environment and more cost effective. However, Hershey’s decided to stay ahead of the labeling issue by reformulating its chocolate to use only non-GMO sugar.

This has been a disaster for sugar beet farmers. The price of sugar derived from the beets dropped as demand plummeted, resulting in a sugar cane sugar shortage. The farmers now face a dilemma, and are contemplating going back to non-GMO sugar beets (if they can).

This one episode has raised food prices, disrupted the sugar industry, and will potentially be bad for farmers and bad for the environment, resulting in greater pesticide use. All that from one company caving to anti-GMO fearmongering and the labeling issue.

The proposed bill will (at least in its current version) give us two years to try to turn public opinion around. We may be seeing a softening of anti-GMO opinions, as the lies and distortions of the anti-GMO crowd are being systematically exposed.

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