Organic Policy and Regulations, Social Implications in Agriculture, What is Organic

Taking Stock and Moving Forward with the GMO Labeling Bill

moving-forwardIn 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.

Taking Stock

watermelonThere 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?

Moving Forward

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?

F160471_SpaghettiOs_New_Labels-0091As 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 to sign up for activity alerts. You can also email, 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?


17 thoughts on “Taking Stock and Moving Forward with the GMO Labeling Bill”

  1. I will definitely be involved. This was a classic compromise where everybody lost and nobody really got what they wanted. The only big winner was the Secretary of Agriculture, who can use S.764 as leverage to force his agenda on co-existence, one that has not always been favorable to organic. Not only must we show up and make our voices heard, we must be vigilant that the GMO labeling legislation not undermine the organic label. The law does nothing to protect organic farmers and consumers from ‘adventitious presence’ or indemnify farmers who have their crops contaminated by no fault of their own. If it becomes widely known that “USDA Organic” accepts higher levels of GMO contamination than non-GMO labeled product, we have achieved nothing by exempting organic from S.764’s labeling requirements.

  2. Will I work on food issues? Yes, most assuredly.

    Will I work with you and OTA? No, thank you.

    Pamm Larry,
    Board of Directors GMO Free USA
    Steering Committee GMO Action Alliance
    Initial Instigator of Prop. 37, the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs in California

  3. Melody,

    Unless clear written GMO labeling, with the words “Genetic engineering” or “Genetically modified” are included in the discussion and are the goal of the group as a whole, I am not interested in supporting an attempt to rectify this disaster. I am only interested in removing GMOs and toxic chemicals out of food completely, and clear GMO labeling in writing on the package would be the only step in that direction. QR codes were never a step in the right direction, they were a strategy to hide GMOs and deceive the American public. I think there is a misunderstanding by the people who negotiated this deal and think that this a step in the right direction…they think that we would for some reason want to spend our time to work with those who betrayed us? No. Our time is valuable. The supporters of the GMO labeling movement who are aware of what happened now have zero trust in this process. Zero.
    What we will spend our time on is raising awareness and changing purchasing such that there is a complete rejection and elimination of GMOs and toxic chemicals. We also support an Appeal of S764 law completely. Nothing else makes a different for consumers and our health at all.
    I read your appeal, now I ask you to stand with mothers and citizens struggling with health issues everywhere and direct your attention to the appeal of the DARK Act and rejection of GMOs and toxic chemicals completely.
    Thank you.

    Zen Honeycutt
    Executive Director
    Moms Across America

    1. Hi Zen,
      I certainly appreciate your passion for this subject and all the work you do.

      I wish we had a completely non-gmo food landscape but in fact it’s very much the opposite right now. That is why it is so important to highlight organic and non-gmo verified products until we win the bigger fight. Getting a complete reversal of our agricultural system would take nothing short of a revolution – one I know you are willing to participate in!

      In the face of our current political landscape I am going to do everything I can to make this law meaningful.

      Thanks again for reading the post and commenting. Melody

  4. Will I stand with the organizations that threw American Consumers a life ring full of lead? I don’t think so. Will I stand with the organizations that pushed for a bill likely to allow GMO labeling to be done in a manner inaccessible to many or even most shoppers? No way.
    Will I stand with the organizations that supported a bill — S764 — peppered with definitional language that could make meaningful labeling of most genetically engineered foods on the market today virtually unenforceable, or a bill that that enshrines a meaningless “consultation” process into a statute, or a bill that yanks enforcement from the FDA, the agency most responsible for public health and safety, and slides it into the Agricultural Marketing Act under USDA? Hardly!

    With false friends such as you and OTA and Whole Foods and JLI and (Heaven help us) even Environmental Working Group selling out to an industry dead set against clearly stated, on-package labeling, who needs enemies? This diabolically crafted piece of legislative drafting will actually leave many people thinking that GMOs will be labeled in some meaningful way when quite the reverse is true.

    What a mean bit of skullduggery to throw at American consumers. The organizations above and some others can take pride in doing their part to effectively make the US the first major country on earth to enact a law that is likely to have the effect of preventing meaningful labeling of genetically engineered foods at any time in the foreseeable future.

    1. Well put, Joan. It was interesting to watch organized interests like GMA and FMI, as well as corporations that outspent organizations that combined outspent organizations advocated GMO labeling by 100:1 in opposing any mandatory labeling to claim victory by passage of a “mandatory labeling” bill. Even though congress mandated a timeline for implementation, there is at this point no organized interest that is pushing for the timely promulgation of regulations. There is so much discretion in the legislation and such a deep division between the American public and the food industry that the most likely scenario is for the USDA to delay rather than propose regulations that will undoubtedly alienate one constituency or the other.

      Make no mistake. S.764 was a panicked response to the Vermont GMO labeling law. It was intended only to pre-empt state-by-state labeling laws. GMA and FMI did not get what they wanted any more than the false friends you mention. We have a stalemate. The legislation created a quagmire of trench warfare that set the entire debate back by at least 20 years.

      1. I will respond to both of you here. I agree with Brian that ultimately nobody got what they wanted. That is the nature of compromise. We have to realize we are living in a political climate with a Congress that is mostly controlled by big ag interests. With that notion I feel it’s a small miracle we got the word voluntary replaced by mandatory.

        In terms of the quagmire, the law mandates that it be implemented in 2 years. I will stay involved in the process so that the creates some meaningful disclosure of GMO’s. It will be up to us and the USDA under a new administration to work through the details. This is why our attention to the election weighs heavily into this discussion. If we have a favorable Administration and Congress elected we can make more headway. Why isn’t good food a greater part of the political debate?

        One of my biggest concerns are the new genetic editing techniques. Traditional transgenic GMO technology is so yesterday. The CrispR’s and synthetic biology’s are stampeding towards our plates. This is the first law that could even remotely addresses them. If we can get them included it would be a monumental first step in addressing their presence in our food.

        In any event I appreciate both of you for reading the post and your passion for the subject.


      2. Melody, please remember that Congress mandated the USDA implement OFPA in two years as well. It took ten years, and there was more legislative guidance and consensus around the organic standards then than there is around GMO labeling now. Nobody can predict the future, but I would not be the least bit surprised if USDA stalls on it at least as long as they stalled on the NOP..

        I agree with Phoebe that the cynical “compromise” of S.764 stands out as particularly ignominious in an abysmal political landscape. Both sponsors of the OFPA—Leahy and DeFazio—voted ‘No’ on the Stab-in-the-DARK compromise. So did such organic stalwarts as Senators Boxer and Tester, and Representatives Farr and Kind. Why OTA did not put its full support behind the Merkley bill is still a mystery to me.

        Until we get the big money out of politics, the landscape will not change. No matter how much money the organic industry throws at the political system, it will always be outspent by the conventional vested interests. Corporations have also spent money through mergers and acquisition to co-opt and neutralize a significant part of the organic sector. The one thing that the organic sector has had to count on is the goodwill and support of organic consumers. Now the organic industry is going the way of the conventional industry, As one ADM executive once said—and I’m paraphrasing—the customer is their enemy and the competitor is their friend.

  5. I have been politically active for the past 40 years, and have learned a thing or two about compromise. But the legislative showdown about the DARK Act, S. 764, was a disgrace.

    All we were asking for was LABELING, which doesn’t even change anything about food production, formulation, marketing, or distribution. Since the major American grocery companies already comply with GMO labeling laws of 64 other countries where they sell their products, it’s nothing short of appalling that there was even any mention of compromise, let alone the hysteria in some quarters (see especially Rep. Pompeo and Sen. Roberts). GMO labeling itself was already a major compromise on our part. The fact that national organizations that were expected to stand for sane, sustainable agriculture policy and real food that nourishes soil, biosphere, and eater, were unable to hold that minimal line, is extraordinarily disappointing to say the least.

    I was told by my senator’s chief ag policy advisor, in our hour-and-a-half-long conversation shortly before the S. 764 vote, that the bill merely sets up a framework for fighting out the details about GMO labeling in the regulatory sphere. But everyone else (including the FDA) says that the law’s definition of biotechnology eligible for labeling is so restrictive that very little food actually qualifies; that although the law is referred to as “mandatory” labeling, there are no due dates for compliance or penalties for non-compliance; that the indirect labeling methods, which are strongly preferred by GMA companies, are time-consuming, technology-dependent, and discriminatory, effectively transferring the burden of discovery to the consumer instead of requiring corporate disclosure. Which is it?

    Also, a word about coexistence. I have read the USDA’s Coexistence committee reports and have never found anything — not one official recommendation — that shields organic farmers from the chemical assault of their industrial ag neighbors. The chair of that group is the current Secretary of Agriculture for my state, Pennsylvania: Russell Redding. Beware if he is picked for our next USDA Sec’y. Under his guidance, the only solution these folks seem to be able to come up with is that organic farmers had better buy a lot of crop insurance. This issue is a major threat to the integrity of the organic label and to organic production, period. It deserves priority attention in the good food movement.

    1. Hi Phoebe,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you that we are way behind the rest of the world in transparency. It’s a real tragedy that stems from the predominance of just a few pharmaceutical and chemical companies taking over US agriculture. They also have great lobbying power in Congress.

      I see organic as the only food system that is working to reverse that trend but even though organic sales grow our organic acreage remains stagnant. We need to keep fighting for more funding for organic agriculture.

      Yes, this law shifts more of the burden to the consumer. It’s far from perfect so we must work with USDA to make the details of the regulations strong.

      Your second point is also very important. USDA’s Coexistence committee has done nothing to protect the organic farmer from contamination. It’s a travesty that contaminated organic farmers must bear the financial burden while the polluter or patent holder gets off Scott-free. I hope the NOSB takes this up with some good recommendations at the next NOSB meeting.

      I do appreciate your concern and your comments, Melody

  6. Easy to find pictures and videos from the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia of President Clinton seated with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack at his right hand, heads together nodding and laughing like two happy kids on a date! Do we really think the next administration is going to be any friendlier to realistic labeling?

      1. I agree that the Democratic Platform is totally preferable. But that does not mean their candidates will always do what they promise. President Obama said he supported GMO labeling during his campaign but he named an AgSec who was a biotech champion and signed the DARK Act as well.

        I agree that there are many other important reasons to vote for the Democratic candidate, but in my opinion but GMO labeling will not be one of them (nor would it be for the other viable candidates). I agree Kathleen Merrigan would be a great AgSec. But will this happen in the foreseeable future except in our dreams? I don’t think so.


  7. Melody this is a thoughtfully written communication, as you know, I am no expert within this sector however your house appears to be deeply fragmented. Idealism is a wonderful thing but one cannot get there in a single step it will take many small advances and continued efforts. Yes, much is left to do and policy change is a war of attrition.

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