The debate regarding GMO labeling laws reached a new high with the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, an overarching piece of federal legislation backed by corporate agriculture that seeks to make the labeling of genetically engineered foods “voluntary.”

And that debate may soon come to an end.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the labeling act on July 23 with 275 votes for the legislation stacked up against 150 votes against it. The act has garnered national attention ever since republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced it in March.

“The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act provides needed clarity and transparency in food labeling,” Pompeo said  in a statement.

Groups for the act – which include the American Seed Trade Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation – say genetically engineered foods are safe, while also claiming that a confusing patchwork of state-by-state laws would overwhelm food manufacturers and retailers.

Agribusiness powerhouses Monsanto, Bunge North America, Cargill, BASF Corporation, Bayer, DuPont and hundreds of others have publically supported the act, as well.

Disclosure forms show that St. Louis-based Monsanto spent at least $2.5 million lobbying Congress on issues that included the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act during the first half of 2015.

That figure is an increase from the previous two quarters when the seed company spent $1.7 million.

Organizations against the act – which include the Center for Food Safety, the National Farmers Union, Food and Water Watch, and the Non-GMO Project – argue that consumers simply have a right to know what’s in their food.

“Passage of this bill is an attempt by Monsanto and its agribusiness cronies to crush the democratic decision-making of tens of millions of Americans,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “Corporate influence has won, and the voice of the people has been ignored.”

Monsanto researchers show guests how genetically engineered crops are produced on July 20, 2015. The very beginning stages are shown here, where scientists experiment with seed germplasm.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015: By the numbers

At the start of 2015, only Maine, Vermont and Connecticut had GMO labeling laws in place, though more than a dozen other states had at least introduced state-level legislation.

North Dakota and Michigan are the only states that have passed laws opposing the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act – dubbed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” or DARK Act, by critics – would override all state legislation, letting companies internally decide whether to label their GMO products.

The act would also create an official U.S. Department of Agriculture certification process for companies that want to be labeled as non-GMO. Under the act, the process would be similar to the system for organic foods already in place where 80 independent agents are authorized to certify organic standards.

Monsanto’s Chesterfield Village research facility on July 20, 2015.
Monsanto’s Chesterfield Village research facility on July 20, 2015.

In the past, non-GMO labels have unofficially been verified through the nonprofit, third-party Non-GMO Project.

The Non-GMO Project states it has verified more than 27,000 products from about 1,500 brands, an inventory of merchandise good for more than $11 billion in annual sales.

Although, historically, republicans have opposed big government legislation that overrides states’ rights, the act received widespread party support. Exactly 230 republicans voted for the bill, according to a voting breakdown. Twelve voted against it, and three did not vote.

Democrats voted opposite republicans, with 138 voting against the act and 45 for it. Another five democratic representatives did not vote.

“American families deserve to know what they are eating and feeding their children,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut democrat, in a statement. The [Food and Drug Administration] already requires clear labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives and food processes. GMOs should be no different.”

It is now up to the Senate to decide the fate of the labeling act.

Congressional records show the act has been referred to the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, chaired by republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

“A single federal labeling standard for non-GMO and GMOs that is based on science would ensure that America’s farmers and food manufacturers work under a uniform standard across all 50 states and that consumers receive uniform, consistent information on GMOs,” said President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association Pamela Bailey. “The alternative – a patchwork of state and local food laws across the country with different labeling mandates and requirements – will create confusion, cause significant new costs for Americans, and lead to critical problems for our nation’s grocery supply chain.”

Monsanto Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley on July 20, 2015. Monsanto is one of the hundreds of agribusinesses in support of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.

Sociologist calls GMO debate a ‘wicked’ problem

Consumer polls have gauged public support for mandatory labeling laws anywhere between 70 percent and 90 percent.

As an associate professor in the department of sociology for Iowa State University, Carmen Bain has analyzed society’s complex opinions on GMOs and labeling laws. She said popular support stems largely from consumers who believe they have a right to know what’s in the food they throw in their shopping carts and eat at home.

“I think many of the key activists who are engaged in this issue, who are mobilizing segments around the GMO labeling issue, I think for most of them the issue isn’t really about GMOs,” Bain said during a recent National Press Foundation event. “GMO is really a proxy for many of the social, economic and political concerns that they have about the agri-food system.”

Carmen Bain takes questions during her talk about GMOs and labeling on July 21, 2015. Bain is an associate professor in the department of sociology at Iowa State University.

Those feelings are magnified by the fact that choice and transparency are core American values, she said. Consequently, GMOs pose a “wicked problem” because they are inherently subject to political and social uncertainty, in addition to more objective questions regarding scientific safety.

At least one academic study has backed that idea up.

Although polls have revealed general support for mandatory labeling laws, a Rutgers public survey found that a large portion of consumers do not know what GMOs are.

The survey reported that 54 percent of surveyed individuals knew very little or nothing about genetically modified foods.

Another 25 percent of individuals had never heard of genetically modified foods.

“The issue of consumer attitudes around this issue is much more complicated than the way it’s been presented here,” Bain said.

Besides working as a professor, Bain serves as an investigator on a USDA study looking at a variety of transgenic soybeans. Her role is to look at societal acceptance of genetically modified foods and labeling initiatives.

A voluntary labeling act – such as Pompeo’s – has the potential for settling public debate, Bain said.

“We can’t solve this issue with the use of science and scientific facts,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Quotes attributed to Carmen Bain and photos taken came during the National Press Foundation “Food, From Farm to Table” fellowship in July 2015. The fellowship was focused on reporting on food issues and was sponsored by Monsanto, The Organic Trade Association and AARP. Reporter Robert Holly was among the fellows.

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