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GMO Labeling Bill. What a Shame. What a Sham.

August 4, 2016

OPINION -- Last Friday, President Obama signed S 764, pre-empting Vermont’s law requiring food companies to label products with GMO ingredients. It’s a major victory for Monsanto, the biotech industry and Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, all of whom know labeling could diminish their profits. Most polls found about 90% of respondents wanted on-the-package GMO labeling, an almost-unheard-of support level for any issue. True public advocates, like the Organic Consumers Association, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Cornucopia Institute, Food Democracy Now, etc., exposed the bill for the charade it was. All to no avail. Some answers to frequently asked questions:

Q. Is S 764 that bad? Isn’t it better to have some requirement for all 50 states? Isn’t half a loaf better than none?

A. Please understand. This is a labeling law that doesn’t require labeling. It allows toll-free numbers and QR codes requiring smart phones to read. Any corporation trying to hide its use of GMO’s (i.e. most of them) will employ the QR codes. Other major problems: the USDA has another two years to draw up rules, whereas Vermont’s law had taken effect July 1 . . . there’s no penalty if a corporation chooses to ignore this law . . . unclear definitions mean that the most widely used GMO’s may not even have to be labeled . . . and it’s all under the authority of the USDA, the same agency that wanted the Organic label to allow GMO’s until a groundswell of consumer outrage forced it to back down. This isn’t half a loaf. It’s barely a crumb.

Q. What’s the problem with the QR codes?

A. According to a 2015 Pew Research survey, only 68% of adults even own a smart phone. Ownership rates of low-income, rural and elderly Americans are even lower. This would prevent 100 million Americans from determining if a food has GMO ingredients.

And even for those with smart phones, most shoppers don’t want to spend extra time hunting GMO information, especially if you’re on a limited time plan and it would cost you money.

Q. How did Oregon’s delegation vote?

A. Both Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden voted against it, with Merkley playing a leading opposition role. House Democrats Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici voted against it. Republican Greg Walden and Democrat Kurt Schrader (no surprise here) voted for it.

Q. Where are national figures on the issue?

A. Bernie Sanders denounced the bill, voting against it. Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine voted for it. Hillary Clinton was mum, but in 2014 collected a whopping $335,000 for a single speech to the Biotechnology Industry Organization in which she made several suggestions on how to market GMO’s better. Judging by their actions, our top two national Democratic leaders are lying comfortably in bed with Monsanto. Donald Trump? Who knows? If he gets elected, we’re toast, GMO or not.

Q. The Senate voted 63-30 and House 306-117 for this bill, showing substantial Democratic support. Why?

A. You could start with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who caved in to Republicans, the industry and pro-biotech Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to give the bill the stamp of bipartisanship approval. Second, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer sent a notice to all the D’s the morning of the vote. He stopped short of fully endorsing it, but the tone was generally favorable. More important, it said ”Administration officials have indicated that the President intends to sign the bill into law . . .” Finally, the Organic Trade Association endorsed the bill, fatally fracturing the strong coalition opposing it.

OTA’s 8,500 member businesses didn’t vote on the decision, but that’s not unusual. Trade association boards often make major policy decisions for their members, especially one so controversial and complex. But the OTA board never voted on S 764. According to several sources, only the executive director, board chair and one other board member made the decision. How much input they got from other board members depends on who you ask?. But two key points are clear: OTA’s support of the bill gave the green light to Democrats looking for cover to vote for it and most likely turned the tide in the Senate. Second, the coalition fighting the bill was outraged, feeling that OTA Stabenow-ed them in the back. (OTA officials didn’t respond to several requests for comments)

Q. In 2007, Candidate Barack Obama promised to “let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying." How could he sign a bill excluding so many people from getting this information?

A. If you feel betrayed, you’re not alone. Seems he forgot about all those folks without smart phones and ignored Rev. Jesse Jackson’s personal letter opposing the bill, which cited its “serious questions of discrimination.” And the malarkey keeps coming. Activists had gathered over 100,000 signatures asking Obama to veto the bill. A few quotes from the White House “We the People” response: “Before the new disclosure program is put in place, the law calls for a study to be conducted to assess whether challenges exist related to consumers’ access to electronic disclosures.” Gee, thanks for wasting our tax dollars to repeat studies that already have documented these “challenges.” Aren’t 100 million people without smart phones enough? “While there is broad consensus that foods produced using bioengineering are safe . . .” Oh really? Aside from the major controversy over the safety of GMO foods themselves the White House ignores the 2015 World Health Organization conclusion that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is a probable carcinogen. Roundup is the world’s most widely used weedkiller.

“We look forward to your continuous engagement . . .” No you don’t. And as the Center for Food Safety’s Andy Kimbrell observed, how do you ”create a ‘transparent’ process to establish non-transparent labeling?”

Q. What can we do about this?

A. Unfortunately, the law is a done deal. On an individual basis, thank your U.S. senator and representative if they voted against S 764, and express your disappointment (or disgust) if they voted for it. Food Democracy Now announced it plans to sue based on the law’s obvious discrimination against those who can’t afford smart phones. They may not be alone, so look for opportunities to support organizations that will continue to carry the fight forward.

Rick North is the former CEO of the Oregon American Cancer Society (1994-99) and former Project Director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Campaign for Safe Food (2003-2011). He retired in February 2011 to become a volunteer confronting undue corporate influence in elections and the government. He can be reached at [email protected]