The Senate Agriculture Committee voted to approve industry-backed legislation on Tuesday that seeks to create a new federal voluntary labeling standard for food made from genetically engineered ingredients.
The bill – sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) – amends the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 and comes months ahead of a Vermont law set for July 1 that requires food companies to label all GMO products.
If passed, the legislation would bury that Vermont law and render similar labeling initiatives useless.
“Agriculture biotechnology has become a valuable tool in ensuring the success of the American farmer in meeting the challenge of increasing yield in a more efficient, safe and responsible manner,” Roberts said during the committee hearing. “Any threat to technology hurts the entire value chain from farmer to consumer.”
The Senate committee voted 14-6 in favor of the bill.
Industry groups that have publicly pushed for voluntary measures include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Corn Refiners Association and St. Louis-based seed giant Monsanto.
“It might surprise you to know that we have been in favor of voluntary labeling for many, many years,” said Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant during the seed company’s annual shareholder meeting held Jan. 29. “We hope – sincerely – that we can reach some form of federal labeling standards that applies across the whole country.”
Roberts’ bill follows the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed with a 275-150 vote in July.
In the United States, roughly 90 percent of corn and soybeans are grown from genetically engineered seed. A portion of those crops is then used in food ranging from cereal and soda to soup and tofu.
Consumer advocacy organizations have opposed legislation for a federal voluntary standard because they believe it will leave consumers uninformed when it comes to knowing what’s in their food.
Maine and Connecticut policymakers have also passed mandatory labeling legislation, according to the Center for Food Safety.
More than a dozen states have at least introduced legislation.
Officials from Monsanto and other top agribusinesses argue that such state-level laws would lead to a complex maze of rules and regulations. The efforts required to navigate such a system would in turn increase the cost of food for consumers, they say.
“Our concern has been the emergence of state-by-state labels where you end up with a patchwork quilt effect of legislation where it’s very difficult to know from state to state what is in the food,” Grant said. “And to move that move between states becomes very expensive.”
The Corn Refiners Association concluded that Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law would increase grocery costs for American families by more than $1,000 a year.
But the exact cost of labeling has been hotly debated, and a handful of studies have even suggested that GMO labeling will have little to no effect on food prices.
Monsanto has been among the most active corporations in stopping state-level mandatory labeling initiatives in the past.
In 2014, Monsanto spent at least $1.5 million in effort to defeat an Oregon proposition that required all foods made in whole or in part with genetically engineered ingredients to have a clear label on the product, according to the St. Louis Business Journal
And in 2013, opponents to a similar Washington initiative collected at least $22 million in donations with more than $5 million coming from Monsanto, according to the California-based nonpartisan research organization MapLight.
Despite possible increased costs, several poll numbers suggest the American public wants GMO foods labeled.
“When parents go to the store and purchase food for their children, they have a right to know what they are feeding them,” said presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in a statement. “I am very proud that Vermont took the lead nationally to make sure people know what is in the food they eat.”
Voluntary bill seeks to clarify what it means to be GMO
The U.S. Department of Agriculture already has a system in place that defines what it means for a product to be labeled as organic.
A similar system does not yet exist for genetically engineered food products.
Under Roberts’ bill, the federal government would have two years to clarify exactly what it means for food to be pegged as genetically engineered or GMO.
For example, some consumers may view soda that contains high fructose corn syrup processed from genetically engineered corn as a GMO product, but others may not. Instead, some consumers may only see engineered products like browning-resistant apples or wilt-resistant lettuce as true GMO foods.
Currently, food labeled “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” is independently verified by the third-party nonprofit The Non-GMO Project.
Whatever standard the government comes up with must “prohibit any express or implied claim that a food is or is not safer or of higher quality” solely based on whether the food contains genetically engineered ingredients, according to a draft of the bill released prior to the committee hearing.
The bill also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide educational outreach on GMOs.