Senate GMO Bill Creates Harsh Divide In Organic Community

Update July 15: After the Senate voted 63-30 for the bill that prevents GMO labels, the House voted 306-117 on July 14.

That means, unless President Obama vetoes the DARK Act, Vermont’s law will not take effect.

The 30 Senators who voted NO deserve a big Thank You.

So much for states’ rights, which Republicans supposedly cherish. While some Democrats voted for the bill, most fought against it. “The late-night vote came after Democrats wore out the procedural clock and blocked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) from scheduling votes earlier Thursday,” says The Hill.

No hearings were held, no votes in committee – the Senate voted to go straight to the floor. That’s democracy? The bill now goes to the House and then to Obama for his signature – will he veto it?

Sadly, even before Vermont’s GMO labeling law entered force on July 1, it had the intended effect. A slew of major food corporations had announced they would either label GMOs or remove them from their products: General Mills, Campbell’s, Kellogg’s, Danone, ConAgra, Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, Mars, Hershey’s, Wonder Bread, Starbucks, and others.

But now, that’s over. Instead of putting a simple label on products that contain GMOs, here’s what the Big Ag Dream Bill is:

  • voluntary because there is no enforcement mechanism and no penalties for non-compliance.
  • mandatory labels are replaced with a convoluted requirement for QR codes and 1-800 numbers
  • useless: it omits common GMO ingredients like soy and corn by exempting finished products like oils (that contain soy), sugar from GMO beets and high fructose corn syrup. The new legal definition of “bioengineered” foods omits 95% of foods with GMOs.
  • USDA will decide what percentage of a food must have GMOs before it requires a label. And it will decide which word, symbol or QR code will be used to indicate the presence of GMOs. What you see might not have any resemblance to “GMO”.

And the USDA has two years to publish regulations.

It not only overturns Vermont’s carefully considered and fairly debated mandatory GMO labeling law, but as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) noted in his speech on the Senate floor, it overturns nearly 100 other state laws.

“The idea that people would need to walk around the grocery store scanning product codes to find out what’s in the food they’re buying is ridiculous and unfair,” said Senator Durbin (D-IL) during Thursday’s brief floor debate. “Food companies should not be able to hide behind confusing coded labels that conceal their products’ ingredients.”

“The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which sued and lost in trying to stop Vermont’s law, has 34 lobbyists working on this issue alone. They spent $8.5 million lobbying between 2015-2016, and they’re still lobbying . . . The food and biotech industries and their trade associations have spent nearly $200 million to oppose state labeling initiatives, like Vermont’s Act 120. When combined with Washington lobbying expenditures that mention GMO labeling, the total amount spent by corporate interests is close to $400 million,” said Bernie Sanders.

Even the FDA came out against this bill, saying it “may be difficult” for ANY GMO food to qualify for labeling because the bar is set so high.

Organic Industry Deeply Divided

While co-sponsor Senator Roberts calls the bill the “most important agriculture vote in 20 years,” and Monsanto and Big Food got what they wanted, the organic industry is deeply divided over it.

Senators received mixed messages from the organic community, with some backing it and others virulantly against it.

Over the last decade or so, big food has been buying up our pioneering organic companies and many of them showed willingness to back this “compromise” bill to the dismay and anger among independent organic businesses.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is particularly under fire for backing it. They even hired the same lobbying firm that works for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization – which represents Monsanto et. al.

OTA says it has long supported mandatory GMO labels, but felt it had to back this “compromise” bill to protect organic standards in Congress. The bill “recognizes, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the market place.” “A compromise GMO labeling bill was happening, with or without us.”

Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association calls some of big name organic companies traitors, helping to cut the backroom deal: Walter Robb, CEO of Whole Foods Market; Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm and the pseudo-pro GMO labeling group Just Label It; Environmental Working Group, represented by Scott Faber, former head lobbyist for the pro-biotech Grocery Manufacturers Association; UNFI, the largest wholesaler of natural and organic foods; and the Organic Trade Association (OTA), led by “natural” brands such as Smuckers and White Wave, and represented by their Board Chair Melissa Hughes from Organic Valley.

“These self-selected “Good Food” and “Organic” leaders told Congress members behind closed doors that the organic community would accept an industry-crafted DARK Act “compromise”- the Stabenow/Roberts bill. In fact, by some calculations, the Organic Trade Association alone persuaded 7-10 Senators to betray you, and vote for the DARK Act.”

“The bottom line is that the junk food “parent” companies of leading organic brands such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Danone, Smuckers, ConAgra, do not want GMO labeling, so they’ve instructed their underlings in the OTA to tell Congress that it’s OK to kill the popular Vermont bill,” says Cummins.

On the other hand, Environmental Working Group says has this to say about the bill, and actions against the bill are plastered on Just Label It’s website. They were afraid the bill would be much worse and apparently accepted the compromise.

Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield, long viewed as an environmental champion, raised eyebrows when he hired Scott Fabor, the former chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association to run Just Label It. Faber is also vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, another respected non-profit. Pretty weird stuff.

They all say they were against this bill, but they got what they could because they knew it would pass.

The Bottom Line

Ronnie Cummins explains the bottom line well:

“Millions of health-minded Americans, especially parents of young children, now understand that cheap, non-organic, genetically engineered, industrial food is hazardous. Not only does chemical- and energy-intensive industrial ag/factory farming destroy the environment, destabilize the climate, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply, but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated.

Routinely contained in every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are genetically engineered ingredients, pesticides, antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, feces, hormone-disrupting chemicals, toxic sludge, slaughterhouse waste, chemical additives and preservatives, irradiation-derived radiolytic chemical by-products, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins.

There can be no such thing as “coexistence” with a reckless GMO-driven food and farming system that undermines public health, destroys biodiversity, damages the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically devastates the world’s two billion seed-saving small farmers.

We need mandatory labels so that we can drive Frankenfoods, chemical agriculture, and factory farm products off the market. And if Congress and the Organic Elite take away our right to know, they will leave us no choice but to boycott 90 percent of the foods on grocery store shelves-in other words, everything, unless it’s labeled organic, grass-fed, or non-GMO.”

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