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Vermont has had food labels that indicate food has been "partially produced with genetic engineering." Sally McCay / UVM Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

By Jane Kolodinsky

There has been substantial debate over whether mandated labels for genetically engineered foods might increase or decrease consumer aversion toward genetic engineering.

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GMO Label Bill Clears Major Hurdle in Senate ... Now What?

Sen. Bernie Sanders "expertly trolled" the Senators who support the so-called DARK Act

GMO

Yesterday—five days after Vermont enacted its landmark GMO labeling mandate—the Senate voted 65-32 in a cloture vote to move a controversial GMO labeling bill forward.

This bipartisan "compromise" bill, introduced after years of negotiations by Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, would require businesses to label genetically modified foods. That is, if you consider a QR code, 1-800 number or a website URL a label instead of clear, concise language that 9 out of 10 American consumers want and a number of major food companies have started doing anyway. The bill would also nullify state-by-state mandates such as Vermont's and halt efforts by 30-odd states considering similar legislation.

The Senators's bill is unsurprisingly backed by the very industry that produces and profits from such products, including the Grocery Manufactures Association, Monsanto, etc. Deep-pocketed food and beverage corporations have spent millions to lobby politicians and even sued Vermont to stop GMO labeling with the belief that GMO labels would scare consumers away and that a 50-state patchwork of rules would be confusing and costly.

Incidentally, as Common Dreams reported, in data revealed by OpenSecrets.org and the Organic Consumers Association, the senators who voted "yea" on last week's 68-29 preliminary vote received more than twice as much in contributions from the agriculture lobby than those who voted "No" ($867,518 for the supporters vs. $350,877 for opponents).

Opponents of the bill have dubbed it another version of the "Deny Americans the Right to Know," or DARK Act. The earlier DARK Act, which would block state labeling laws, failed in March. The New York Times editorial board also called the latest bill "flawed," stating:

While most scientists say that genetically modified foods do not pose a risk to human health, consumers should have a right to more information about what they are eating. Polls have found that a vast majority of Americans favor mandatory labels. Dozens of countries, including all 28 members of the European Union and Australia, already require similar disclosures.

Researchers have found that labels do not dissuade people from consuming genetically engineered food, which has been a big worry of farm groups and businesses. It is no surprise then that some companies, like Campbell Soup, have voluntarily agreed to label their products.

The biggest problem with the Senate bill is that—instead of requiring a simple label, as the Vermont law does—it would allow food companies to put the information in electronic codes that consumers would have to scan with smartphones or at scanners installed by grocery stores. The only reason to do this would be to make the information less accessible to the public.

So where does that leave us? Well, the decision means that debate is now limited to 30 hours and can withstand filibuster. The final vote could happen sometime tonight or tomorrow and would only require a simple majority, or 51 votes. Efforts by Sen. Bernie Sanders to put a hold on the bill have been quashed since the cloture vote mustered more than 60 yeas.

If the legislation clears the Senate, it would go to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has historically voted against transparency after passing Rep. Mike Pompeo's bill (H.R. 1599) last year. It would then goes to President Obama's desk, who could sign the bill into law.

If it seems that the bill probably stands a chance, there are still a number of obstacles. As Politco's Morning Agriculture blog reported, Roberts did not exactly celebrate the cloture vote, adding, "Strange things can happen." For instance, on Wednesday during the cloture vote, GMO labeling advocates from the Organic Consumers Association threw $2,000 in cash from the Senate balcony to the floor. They yelled "Monsanto Money" and "Sen. Stabenow, listen to the people, not Monsanto" as the bills fell, according to The Hill.

Yesterday's vote also revealed that the bill has lost some steam since last week's 68-29 procedural vote. According to Politico, "Maine Sens. Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I) voted yes last week but opposed cloture, as did Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Meanwhile, Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Bob Menendez (N.J.) voted for cloture after opposing the vote last week. The nays added Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who did not vote last week."

Additionally, the Right-wing Heritage Foundation is also against the bill (basically, the foundation says even QR codes are too transparent) and have urged lawmakers to oppose the bill and warned it would key the vote as part of its legislative scorecard.

As for the House vote, even though the lower chamber already passed their own GMO bill, the Senate version is different enough that the House would have to vote on it again, as Grist noted.

The House has been urged by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives to take up and pass the bill before summer recess, which starts next Friday.

A spokeswoman for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway told Politico that Conaway "will await the outcome in the Senate before making any public statements regarding his position on what action he believes the House should or should not take. He's still engaged in discussions with industry and other stakeholders on the matter."

Detractors of the bill are speaking out against further advancement of the bill. Sanders tweeted Wednesday: "The Stabenow-Roberts GMO bill is confusing, misleading and unenforceable. It does nothing to make sure consumers know what they're eating."

Also, as Quartz puts it, the presidential candidate also "expertly trolled" the Senators who support the bill.

The QR Code is real by the way. If you don't have a QR scanner, the code links to a statement on Sanders's website defending his home state's GMO labeling law.

A number of environmental and consumer advocate groups have spoken out against the bill and the Senate vote.

"Friends of the Earth denounces the Senate's passage of the DARK Act, S. 764, a bill which was passed under the guise of GMO labeling," food and technology campaigner Dana Perls said. "This bill is a travesty, an undemocratic and discriminatory bill which preempts state laws, while offering no meaningful labeling for GMOs. If accepted, Americans will remain in the dark about what we feed our families. We are deeply disappointed in the members of Congress who supported this bill and who did not stand with the vast majority of Americans who want mandatory on-package GMO labeling.

"Friends of the Earth urges consumers to call on the House and President Obama to oppose any bills that would undermine state GMO labeling laws, and to only support meaningful, mandatory on-package labeling for GMO foods, including those made with new gene editing techniques."

Food & Water Watch California Director Adam Scow criticized Sen. Dianne Feinstein's "vote against consumers and for Big Food."

"[The legislation] rolls back the progress that people around the country have made to get clear, on package labeling for GMOs," Scow said. "The bill she voted for will leave way too many Californians in the dark when it comes to knowing what's in the food we eat and how it was produced."

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said, "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."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

[Editor's note: Read the latest here.]

Today, in a cloture vote, the Senate voted to do away with our right to know what's in our food, revoking a popular and clear state labeling law in effect inVermont and nullifying all future state labeling initiatives.

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

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. 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.

Now, we call on the House not to pass the bill. We also call on President Obama to veto the bill if it comes to his desk. On the campaign trail many years ago, he promised reform on many food issues—from giving family farmers a fair shot in the marketplace to food labeling, saying we had the right to know whether or not food is genetically engineered. Before he leaves office, he has one more chance to get it right when it comes to food policy that protects people over corporations. He must veto this bill.

Watch as Senators John Tester (D-MT) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) speak out today against the Senate GMO food labeling bill, with Senator Tester arguing that including the label as a QR code protects corporate food producers over consumers:

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Despite Vermont's historic GMO labeling bill coming into effect June 1, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) are vigorously lobbying to get their industry-approved GMO labeling deal passed before Congress's summer break.

Senate Ag leaders Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow hope to pass legislation allowing food companies to label their products containing GMOs with a QR code instead of on-package labels.

According to POLITICO's Morning Agriculture blog, the Senate Ag leaders are using "every part of the lobbying playbook," with "letters being sent, staffs briefed, reports and FDA assessments flaunted, and farmers and consumers are being encouraged to inundate lawmakers with phone calls."

Roberts has been reportedly distributing a flier touting that the bill will nullify the "dangerous"Vermont law and stop other states from passing similar legislation.

Even though Vermont's mandate comes into effect Friday, the Senators's bill still has a small window of passage as Vermont's attorney general will not start forcing producers to label their food products containing genetically engineered ingredients until the start of 2017.

A confident Stabenow told POLITICO that enough votes will be secured for the deal to move forward, while Roberts said, "We had 46 [Republicans] last time, and we're hoping to get a few more." Last March, the Senate voted down Roberts's previous bill that would have prohibited states from requiring genetically modified food labels. The bill required 60 votes for passage but failed 48-49.

Roberts said his latest GMO bill will be the first order of business next week and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will set up a cloture vote, according to this tweet from Agripulse senior editor Philip Brasher.

While Democrat Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sherrod Brown of Ohio announced support for the bill, it is not clear if it will gather enough votes to pass. And not to mention, the bill has to pass the House and be signed by President Obama before it becomes law.

Vermont's own Sen. Bernie Sanders has announced he will try to block Senate consideration of the bill. In a statement on Tuesday, the Democratic presidential candidate said:

I am very proud that Vermont has led the country in GMO labeling. This bill would preempt what Vermont and other states have done. GMO labeling exists in dozens of countries around the world. It is not controversial. Already major food companies in our country have begun labeling their products. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat. I am going to do everything I can to defeat this legislation.

By putting a hold on the bill, Sanders can block it from coming up for debate unless the proponents can muster up 60 votes.

The Roberts-Stabenow bill has been described by opponents as another version of the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act as it includes provisions that would establish a federal program based on QR codes, a symbol, 1-800 numbers or a statement on packages referring people to websites.

While many major food companies have already started labeling their products to comply with Vermont's labeling mandate, under the new federal scheme proposed by the Senators, food makers can change their labels to a QR code.

In fact, both Campbell's and General Mills have already said they support the new proposal.

"We need consistency across the country. And without this national solution, we risked having a system of 50 different regulations impacting our packages," General Mills' Mike Siemienas told The Olympian.

"We will continue to comply with Vermont's law until Congress and the president enact legislation that pre-empts and replaces it," Tom Hushen of Campbell's said. "With or without new federal legislation, the Vermont label will continue to appear on shelves across most of the country and well into the future."

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Tomorrow, Vermont's historic GMO labeling law goes into effect. This is the first law enacted in the U.S. that would provide clear labels identifying food made with genetically engineered ingredients. Indeed, stores across the country are already stocking food with clear on-package labels thanks to the Vermont law, because it's much easier for a company to provide GMO labels on all of the products in its supply chain than just the ones going to one state.

Alexis Baden Mayer

But this victory may be fleeting. The Senate will vote next week on a federal bill that would nullify Vermont's law and other state labeling efforts percolating, thanks to the heavy hand the ag-biotech industry wields over our congressional representatives.

With a vote for this so-called "compromise" bill, Congress would effectively be pulling transparent GMO labels from grocery stores. This legislation is in effect a voluntary disclosure bill since there are no penalties for companies that decide not to comply with the mandate to provide even the most meager disclosure mechanisms, like QR codes or 1-800 numbers. And the definition of GMO in the bill is so flawed that many products containing GMOs would not be covered.

The Senate should not vote to roll back the popularly enacted Vermont law and replace it with a giveaway to the agriculture industry. The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable if they vote to strip away transparency about how their food is produced. We urge the Senate to reject this bill.

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Much fanfare met the May 8 historic achievement in Vermont, in which the state passed the first no-strings-attached bill requiring labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Fanfare from individuals and organizations who care to know what’s in the food they eat each day, that is.

Photo credit: Vermont Right to Know GMOs

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and other trade associations? Now that’s a different story. The GMA, the International Dairy Foods Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Snack Food Association filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the law.

The same day that Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed the bill into law, the GMA issued a statement vouching for the safety of GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops and promising a lawsuit, stating, “The government ... has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM ingredients, making this law’s legality suspect at best.”

Many groups pushing for GMO labeling beg to differ, and, meanwhile, 64 countries have passed labeling laws and more than 60 state bills were introduced over the past year. Connecticut and Maine both successfully passed GE labeling laws, though they are contingent on other states in the region passing laws before they would go into effect. The Vermont GE labeling law is the first to pass without such a trigger.

“After years of good old-fashioned work, and playing by the rules, the grassroots labeling movement achieved its first real victory this year,” said Organic Consumers Association Founder and Director Ronnie Cummins of the Vermont labeling law.

Why is the battle to label GMO foods so important to so many people?

As explained by the plaintiffs in the GMA lawsuit factual background:

If a person lives in the Unites States for any period of time and does not restrict all of her food purchases to organic food, she is almost certainly consuming ingredients from GE plants on a daily basis … The vast majority of foods sold in grocery stores in the United States today contain some amount of at least one ingredient that is connected to a GE plant.

That’s right, on a daily basis. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety, which has been active in the push for GE labeling, succinctly sums it up: “Transparency in a sector that is integral to our lives every single day is absolutely essential.”

Many are confident that Vermont will prevail in a legal battle with the trade groups—and promise to continue the fight. “This battle is about your health, and the health of your environment,” said Cummins. “This battle is about the rights of states to pass laws to protect their citizens.”

 

Defying repeated threats of a lawsuit from Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), on May 8, Peter Shumlin, Governor of Vermont, signed a historic bill requiring food manufacturers to label genetically engineered (GE) foods, and to drop the practice of labeling GE foods as “natural” or “all natural.”

On May 9, true to its word, the GMA confirmed that it will sue Vermont in federal court to overturn H. 112.

Anti-GMO rally. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / J. Bicking

Vermont is prepared to fight back. The state has already established a “food fight” legal defense fund. Legal analysts say Vermont will likely win.

Vermont isn’t the only state up against the multi-billion dollar lobbying group. The GMA, whose 300-plus members include Monsanto and Dow, Coca-Cola and General Mills, is pushing a bill in Congress that would preempt all states from passing (genetically modified organism) GMO labeling laws.

It’s time for consumers in every state to band together to defeat the GMA’s full-on assault, not only on Vermont, not only on consumers’ right to know what’s in our food, but on states’ rights and on our basic freedoms to protect our health and our communities.

Here’s how we do it. We boycott every product, including the natural and organic brands, owned by members of the GMA. We flood their Facebook pages, tarnish their brand names. We pressure financial institutions, pension funds and mutual funds to divest from Monsanto and the other GMA companies.

Our motto for Monsanto and GMA products must become: Don’t buy them. Don’t sell them. Don’t grow them. And don’t let your financial institution, university, church, labor union or pension fund invest in them.

As soon as the GMA files a lawsuit against Vermont, the Organic Consumers Association, joined by a growing coalition of public interest groups, will launch a boycott and divestment campaign directed against all of the 300 GMA companies and their thousands of brand name products—including foods, beverages, seeds, home and garden supplies, pet food, herbicides and pesticides.

A new balance of power

Monsanto and the GMA have, until now, successfully blocked popular GMO labeling legislation in more than 30 states. They’ve defeated, by a razor-thin margin, two high-profile ballot initiatives, in California (2012) and Washington (2013). And they’ve intimidated Connecticut and Maine into including trigger clauses in those states’ GMO labeling laws, successfully delaying their implementation.

Funding for this anti-consumer, anti-right-to-know lobbying and advertising effort topped $100 million in 2012-2014, including $12 million in illegally laundered donations to I-522, the Washington State GMO labeling ballot initiative of 2013. All of that money has come from the 300 chemical, seed, supermarket, grain, pharmaceutical and food corporations, including Monsanto and the other Gene Giants, who make up the GMA.

Until now the GMA colossus has ruled, not only in Washington D.C., but in all 50 states. But now that Vermont has passed a trigger-free GMO labeling law, and Oregon is poised to do the same in November, the balance of power has shifted.

Monsanto, the GMA and their allies are in panic mode. Because they know that when companies are forced to label or remove GMOs, and also are forced to drop the fraudulent practice of labeling GE-tainted foods as “natural” or “all natural,” in one state, they will have to do it in every state. Just as they’ve been forced to do in Europe, where mandatory GMO labeling has been in effect since 1997.

GMA members and corporate agribusiness hate labeling, because it forces them to reveal all of the hazardous GMOs, chemicals and drug residues lurking in the billions of dollars of foods, beverages, seeds, grains and pesticides they sell. It’s no wonder that Monsanto and GMA’s bill in Congress—a bill they’ve named the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014”—has been renamed the “DARK” (Denying Americans the right to know) Act.

Let the boycott begin

We absolutely must defeat the impending GMA lawsuit against Vermont. This will require us to raise money and provide legal help to the state.

Equally important, we need to intensify our mass education, grassroots lobbying and marketplace pressure so we can defeat Monsanto and the GMA Big Food/Chemical lobby in the court of public opinion, too. If you would like to donate to this effort click here.

But there are other ways we can use our dollars to defeat the GMA. We can refuse to invest, even indirectly through retirement and mutual funds, in those companies. We can pressure institutional investors like Fidelity, Vanguard and State Street to dump their stock in these companies.

And we can boycott all of the 300 GMA companies and their more than 6,000 brand name products—including foods, beverages, seeds, home and garden supplies, pet food, herbicides and pesticides. 

Where to start? As part of this Great Boycott, pro-organic consumer groups will put a special emphasis on boycotting the “Traitor Brands,” those organic and so-called “natural” brands owned and marketed by GMA members.

Health-conscious and green-minded consumers often inadvertently support the GMA when they buy brands like Honest Tea, Kashi, Odwalla and others whose parent companies, all members of the GMA, have donated millions to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California (Prop 37) and Washington State (I-522). (Take the boycott pledge here.)

These Traitor Brands include, among others:

PepsiCo ($4.8M) - IZZE, Naked Juice, Simply Frito-Lay, Starbucks Frappucino

Coca-Cola ($3.2M) - Honest Tea, Odwalla

Nestle ($3M) - Gerber Organic, Sweet Leaf tea

Kraft/Mondelez ($2.4M) - Boca Burgers, Green and Black's

General Mills ($2.1M) - Cascadian Farm, Larabar, Muir Glen

ConAgra Foods ($2M) - Alexia, Pam organic cooking sprays

Kelloggs ($1.1M) - Bear Naked, Gardenburger, Kashi, Morningstar Farms

Campbells ($980k) - Plum Organics, Wolfgang Puck organic soups

Smuckers ($900k) - R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz organic, Smuckers Organic

Hershey's ($880k) - Dagoba

Bimbo Bakeries ($560k) - Earthgrains bread

McCormick ($400k) - Simply Asia, Thai Kitchen

Why not just boycott the conventional GMA parent company brands?

Because those of us who support organics rarely buy products like Coca-Cola, Diet Pepsi or Kellogg’s Genetically-Modified-Sugar-Coated Frosted Flakes, or a packet of Monsanto seeds or a spray bottle of Roundup or 2, 4-D. The only way to pressure Big Food and the Gene Giants is to get millions of conscious consumers to boycott the brands we actually buy.

Let’s be clear. Junk food and beverage companies who are members of the GMA are gobbling up organic and “natural” brands because they recognize the huge profit potential in the fast-growing organic and natural markets. They want our business. If we stop buying their brands, they know there’s a good chance we’ll find alternative brands. And we might never look back.

Seven ways to fight back

There are about 50 popular organic and natural “Traitor Brands” (owned by GMA members). It’s easy for most of us to boycott those brands. But how do we boycott the entire 6,000-product inventory of GMA member-owned brands, especially those of us who don’t shop for those brands in supermarkets?

Here are seven ways to fight back against Monsanto and all the Corporate Bullies of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

1. Stop buying all non-organic processed foods.

Even if they are certified organic, don’t buy any Traitor Brand processed foods or beverages. Ninety percent of the foods Americans buy or consume are heavily processed, deliberately laced with sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, contaminated with dyes, preservatives, pesticides, GMOs and drug residues. If you want to be healthy, if you want to avoid cancer, heart attacks or obesity, build your diet around whole foods, especially raw fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (coconut oil, avocadoes, pastured meat, dairy and eggs, nuts and whole grains) and nuts.

2. Patronize grocers, co-ops and community restaurants that serve organic, cooked-from-scratch, local food.

Many restaurants, especially chain restaurants (Chipotlé is a rare exception), sell many of the brands owned by GMA members.

3. Cook at home with healthy organic ingredients.

4. Buy only heirloom, open-pollinated, and/or organic seeds.

5. Boycott all lawn and garden inputs (chemicals, fertilizers, etc.) unless they are “OMRI Approved,” which means they are allowed in organic production.

6. Read the labels on everything you buy. If a GMA member company owns the product, don’t buy it.

Given the greed and reckless disregard for public health and the environment typical of GMA corporations, chances are these products aren’t good for you and the environment anyway.

7. Download the Buycott app for your smartphone and join OCA's new campaign, "Buy Organic Brands that Support Your Right to Know" so you can scan products before you buy them.

In this age of the Internet and social media, consumer boycotts, divestment campaigns and other forms of marketplace pressure are more powerful than ever. Please join and support the Organic Consumers Association’s “Great Boycott” of Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association today. Let’s show Monsanto and the GMA we mean business.

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