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'Big Food' Ready for Costly Battle as States Consider GMO Labeling Bills
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
"Big Food" is ready for the challenge though and will use its influence and resources to protect profits gained from GMOs that are found in 80 percent of the food America consumes.
The fight has some state attorneys general worried if labeling laws would survive court challenges brought on by food producers. No matter the outcome, it would likely cost millions of dollars to defend them.
“States are getting somewhat gun-shy about being the lead state that’s going to have to pay the attorney fees should there be a successful lawsuit attacking the statute,” said Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell at a recent gathering of attorneys general in Washington, D.C.
“It’s coming to a number of your states,” he added. “The politics are huge. Good luck.”
Some consumer and environmental groups vehemently disapprove of GMOs, calling them “Frankenfood.” They argue GMO crops, which include corn, cotton and soybeans, pose unknown health and environmental risks.
About 50 percent of the 169 million acres of U.S. crop land grew genetically engineered crops in 2013, said the U.S Department of Agriculture in a new report. GMOs can be found in most cereals, frozen foods, meat, dairy, canned soup and even baby formula.
Giant "agribusinesses," including Monsanto and DuPont, contend the newest GMO technology is safe and allows them to produce more robust crop yields while using less water and pesticides. Labeling could increase the costs to consumers, they argue.
However, pesticide groups have rejected the claim regarding toxic chemicals, saying pesticide use has grown exponentially over the last 10 years and is only expected to multiply further given Dow AgroSciences' push to approve new, pesticide-resistant corn and soybean crops.
Regarding money, labeling itself would be “a tiny fraction of the costs” of complying with a labeling law, according to a 2013 report by the Washington Academy of Sciences. The actual costs would come from having to separate genetically engineered ingredients from other foods with those extra costs likely being passed on to consumers.
Washington’s state budget office stated it would cost roughly $3.4 million over six years for the state to enforce labeling requirements that voters considered, and rejected, last year.
“This is a national movement,” said Hawaii Attorney General David Louie at the recent attorneys general gathering. “Don’t think that it’s not coming to you.”
Even though 64 countries have mandated the labeling of GMO foods, the U.S. has been slow to adopt such regulation. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws, but the rules do not go into effect until at least three other states establish the same requirement.
Sixty-seven GMO labeling bills have been introduced in 25 states. In 12 of those states, at least one legislative committee has approved a GMO bill.
Other states with pending legislation on GMO labeling include California, Missouri, Minnesota and Rhode Island, according to Prah. In Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii and Oregon efforts are in motion to put the question on the ballot.
However, the future is less than certain given the food industry’s powerful pro-GMO lobby, which helped defeat previous GMO labeling bills in California, New Hampshire and Washington. In Washington alone, the GMO label bill was the most expensive ballot question in the state's history, costing activists and the food industry a combined $40 million.
States Face Daunting Legal Costs
Before Maine acted, state Attorney General Janet Mills said she warned lawmakers in a 10-page memo that the GMO bill would certainly face significant legal challenges if enacted and that defending it would be costly. “Without even reading my memo, they went into the back room, caucused 10 minutes and came back out and unanimously passed it. That is how effective I am in my legislature,” she said.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen cautioned that he had to be careful what he said because he might be defending his state’s labeling law enacted last year. “I will defend its constitutionality with every effort. But let me put it this way: The year before (it was passed) there was very, very healthy, strong opposition to the bill,” he said.
Pushing for Congressional Action
Critics and proponents of GMO labeling are asking Congress to act, but they are pressing for very different legislation.
A campaign led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association supports a federal labeling requirement, but only if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines there is a proven health or safety risk to GMOs.
But consumer and advocacy groups have derided the duplicitous initiative, saying it undermines state and federal legislation meant to grant consumers the right to know about the types of foods they're consuming.
“Attacking state labeling laws does nothing to address the increasing call from consumers for transparent (genetically engineered) food labeling,” according to a Center for Food Safety statement.
The U.S. House added a provision to the federal farm bill that would have overridden state GMO labeling efforts, but the measure was cut from the final version of the legislation.
Gaining Ground Against GMOs
- Whole Foods has announced by 2018 all products sold in its stores in the U.S. and Canada will need to divulge whether or not they contain GMOs.
- Recently the non-profit Green America mobilized 50,000 people to post comments on Cheerios’ Facebook wall and prompted more than 35,000 consumers to write in and telephone General Mills asking the major food producer to stop using GMOs in popular cereal brands. The initiative worked, General Mills complied and Post Cereals followed suit, agreeing to phase out GMOs from Grape Nuts, Chipotle, Ben & Jerry’s and Kashi.
- Kroger and Safeway have made commitments not to sell GMOs.
Visit EcoWatch’s GMO page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
- Brazil's New President Could Spell Catastrophe for the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
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