In July President Obama signed the bill S.764, establishing the first GMO disclosure standard for food in the US. The bill requires that the Secretary of Agriculture establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods. It represents a huge compromise for many on both sides of the debate. Big agriculture has always been against any disclosure standards, so they are disgruntled. The good food movement feels betrayed by the QR code and 800-number options that companies can potentially use.
So now no one is happy. How did we get here and how do we move forward?
How did we get here?
Over the last two years, there has been a massive assault on the GMO transparency movement. Many iterations of the DARK Act have been proposed in Congress that would have mandated voluntary labeling. In 2015 the House passed Pompeo’s Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 which (if passed in the Senate) would have pummeled the final nail in the coffin signaling the death of our Right to Know (RTK).
Luckily the RTK movement cultivated champions in the Senate who understood that over 90% of US consumers want GMO disclosure on foods. When Secretary Vilsack proposed a QR code as the solution, it was seized upon as a workable solution by Big Ag interests while being mightily rejected by the RTK movement. A compromise of sorts was forming in the Senate. “Give us mandatory labeling and we will include the QR code as an option.” Thus the yolk of the compromise was hatched and is reflected in the final (scrambled) version signed by the President in July.
There are many who are vehemently opposed to and feel betrayed by the passing of this bill. Those who showed up and helped negotiate provisions that protect organic are even today demonized and vilified. The RTK movement has fallen; struck asunder, it lays split into messy watermelon fragments of emotion. Indeed I do not look forward to the comments this blog will elicit but cannot cease this written dialogue for fear of repudiation.
This rift must somehow be healed if we are ever to work together in the face of Big Ag and Big Food. They are stronger than we, with more money, more lobbyists and greater bandwidth. They are the real adversary in this food fight.
The path to compromise isn’t easy or always clear, and in the process, you don’t always get what you want. While this bill is far from perfect, it is a step in the right direction and gives consumers some modicum of transparency in the food supply.
Is it possible that working together on implementation can again unite us?
Congress by design left a lot open for the discretion of the USDA on how to implement this bill. It is now up to us to make sure that the USDA makes it as good as it can be for organic and consumers. We must persuade the USDA to help consumers know at a glance that GMOS are in their food.
We must show up at the table as the regulations are developed to: restrict the QR code, protect definitions and scope of applicability, institute organic protections, and establish meaningful thresholds.
We must make it very clear that the spirit of the law requires that all gene editing techniques are captured. It is essential that we include language that allows for a review process of future technologies even unimagined at this time.
The USDA has been tasked with conducting a study on the feasibility of the scan or QR code option. How big should it be? Where should it be on the package? What is the option for those who don’t have smartphones? What’s a consumer to do if there isn’t Wi-Fi or cell service? Will there be a scanner in every aisle? When consumers see this code, will they immediately know that it means GMO presence? What if retailers dictate to their manufacturers that they must disclose GMO’s with on-package language?
There are many questions to be answered.
What’s the big picture?
As imperfect as it is, it’s still a major game changer – every company’s marketing, R&D and packaging departments are having conversations about GMO’s in their products. Some like Mars, Campbell’s and Dannon are sticking with their on-package clear and simple labeling. We must give kudos to them and all who follow their lead.
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has already sent out a memo putting a firewall around the definitions of GMO in the National Organic Program. No proposed rules for bioengineered food disclosure will require that modifications be made to the USDA organic regulations and no certified organic products will require disclosure as bioengineered. They also clarified that organic meat products can make a non-GMO claim.
Additionally, just because your product isn’t required to disclose GMO’s doesn’t automatically allow you to claim non-GMO status.
Time to get to work!
As soon as the Advanced Notice for Public Comment process begins in October, we must not hesitate to address what we want in the regulations. The Secretary has established an interagency working group for full public engagement. Visit the website www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/gmo to sign up for activity alerts. You can also email GMOLabeling@AMS.usda.gov, and they usually respond within 48 hours
All is not lost, and there are many BIG decisions that lay ahead. If you choose to get stuck in the calamity of disappointment, then you won’t make any impact on the final outcome.
Will you join me in being involved?