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There’s A Reason Congress Is About To Pass A Bipartisan GMO Bill, And It’s Not Because It’s Good

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

On Thursday night, the Senate voted 63 to 30 to pass a measure mandating the labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients, often referred to as GMOs.

This is a pretty big deal — GMOs are a historically contentious issue, and the bill made it through cloture with a great deal of support from disparate parties. If passed, it would be the first time a GMO labeling bill has made it through the Senate. It was supported by both the Organic Trade Association — a typically liberal, anti-GMO advocacy group — and the American Farm Bureau — a traditionally conservative, anti-regulation advocacy group. On Wednesday, the bill earned cloture votes from 47 Republicans and 18 Democrats, and was co-sponsored by both a Democrat and a Republican. On its head, the bill seems to be a product of bipartisan compromise on an issue that seems to be of large importance to a lot of Americans.

But, of course, nothing is quite that simple.

The bill requires food companies that use genetically-engineered ingredients to disclose that fact to consumers somewhere on the packaging of their product. But they can do it in a number of ways, from writing “Contains GMOs” on the label to including a scannable QR code accompanied by a symbol, created by the USDA, that would inform consumers that the product contains genetically-modified ingredients. Small companies wouldn’t even need to put the QR code on the package — instead, they could just include the symbol alongside their phone number and website.

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The bill would also exempt a number of foods from labeling — foods that include oils made from genetically engineered crops, or animal products that were fed genetically-modified feed would not need to be labeled. The Food and Drug Administration, in its opposition to the bill, warned that the bill’s definition of “bioengineering” would “result in a somewhat narrow scope of coverage.”

Genetically-engineered foods are an extremely complicated topic. As Nathanael Johnson points out over at Grist, it’s nearly impossible to completely define exactly what makes a food “genetically modified.” Almost all the foods that we eat have been genetically altered in some way — some through traditional breeding methods, others through techniques created in a lab. Some foods, like sweet potatoes, contain genes from other organisms, but not because of human intervention — instead, thousands of years ago, bacteria simply inserted itself into the DNA of sweet potatoes.

GMOs Are Complicated, And Our Food System Is Not Designed To Handle Complicated. That’s A Problem.Health by CREDIT: Shutterstock This month, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) – an independent group created by…thinkprogress.orgThat ambiguity as to what actually constitutes a genetically modified food makes creating a labeling system really difficult. Food labels, by nature, are confusing — nutrition labels, for instance, lead to nutrition choices barely different from random chance. Expiration labels encourage food waste.

Opponents of the bill argue that a GMO label in the form of a QR code, or a symbol, would simply add to the confusing onslaught of labels that consumers are faced with every time they enter the grocery store. They also worry that QR codes could exclude an entire group of consumers that don’t own smart phones, and therefore would be unable to access the information embedded in the code. Even if grocery stores provided scanners for consumers to use, it seems unlikely that consumer behavior — which has been trained to rely on visual labels more than electronic ones — would instantly change.

“If this bill becomes law, the industry wins what are essentially voluntary requirements under this GMO labeling ‘compromise,’ which does not mandate recalls, penalties or fines for noncompliance with the incredibly weak requirements of the bill that will likely leave many GMO ingredients exempt from any labeling requirements,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “And the bill gives companies the option to use discriminatory QR codes that require a smartphone to access basic information about the food on store shelves.”

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The bill would also pre-exempt local labeling bills from going into effect. Right now, that really only impacts Vermont, which successfully passed the nation’s first GMO labeling requirement in 2014. A federal requirement that pre-exempts local ordinances is not automatically a bad thing — proponents of overhauling expiration labels argue that a lack of a federal standard has resulted in a patchwork of state requirements that simply add to consumer confusion. The same argument can, and has, been made in relation to GMO labeling. But to pre-exempt strong local laws with a weaker version of the same idea has given advocates of labeling some pause.

“This is a slap in the face for all of the activists that have worked hard to pass state-level measures because they believe strongly that labels should be transparent, and that they should decide whether or not they are purchasing and consuming foods with genetically engineered ingredients,” Hauter said. “The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable for stripping away this transparency.”

Whether or not the majority of Americans actually support labeling is up for debate. Polls that ask voters whether or not they want genetically-modified foods to be labeled generally find overwhelming support for labeling. But when voters are asked what, generally, they would like to see on a label, the results are quite different. A Rutgers University poll like this found that only seven percent of those polled said that they would like to see genetically-modified ingredients included on labels.

Regardless of public support, however, most studies show that labeling genetically-modified foods doesn’t actually have that big of an impact on consumer behavior. Studies have shown that labels don’t really impact a consumer’s choice about whether to buy a particular product, even when that label deals with genetic engineering. That could be why companies have begun to commit to labeling the genetically-engineering products in their food — they simply don’t see a downside to it. That could also be why conservative groups like the AFB, and Republican Senators, threw their support behind the recent bill — a weak mandatory labeling law is better than a strict mandatory labeling law, and ultimately, it will probably have a negligible difference on their bottom line.

The bill now moves to the House, which passed a version of a GMO labeling bill last July. If the House votes to pass the bill, it will head to President Obama’s desk for a signature. If that happens, it will likely be held up as an example of bipartisan compromise in an era of historic political gridlock.

Whether that compromise ends up translating into meaningful change, however, remains to be seen.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the bill passed the Senate.