Friday May 24, 2013

In the war over genetically-modified organisms, proponents of GMO labeling lost a key battle on Thursday when the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment that would have allowed states to require labels on food or beverages made with genetically modified ingredients.

That’s a major blow to Vermont given that the state House passed legislation earlier this month to mandate GMO labeling. The Senate took no action before the 2013 legislative session ended, but senators are expected to consider the bill next year.

If that happens, and if Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the bill into law, Vermont would become the first state to mandate GMO labeling. And it could become a test case for anyone in the bio-technology or food industries who wishes to challenge such a law by claiming that food labeling must be left to federal regulators. Without federal protection for the states, such legal challenges are pretty much guaranteed from an industry with very deep pockets.

Fortunately, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who proposed the amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill, is not giving up.

"All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids, and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods," Sanders said when he proposed the amendment.

After the amendment was defeated, he said, "Today’s vote is a step forward on an important issue that we are going to continue to work on."

In fact, the war over GMO labeling is being waged on many fronts -- federal, state and even at the grassroots level.

Nearly half of the nation’s state legislatures have introduced bills to require manufacturers to label foods containing genetically modified or genetically engineered products. In addition to Vermont, other states include Washington, Oregon, Connecticut and Maine.

The science is still inconclusive on whether genetically modified and genetically engineered foods are harmful to humans, but supporters of GMO labeling point to studies showing a range of potential risks, from kidney and liver damage to reproductive system issues. More than 60 countries around the world already require labeling of genetically modified foods, including all the countries of the European Union, Russia, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has resisted labels for genetically altered foods, this issue has been brewing for some time now here in America. It came even more to the forefront in March after Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed an Agricultural Appropriations Bill that included a rider which allows bio-tech companies like Monsanto to continue selling farmers genetically engineered seeds while their approval is being challenged in federal court.

Unofficially dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act, the rider was anonymously slipped in to a bill that was rushed through Congress to avoid a government shutdown. The good news is that the appropriations bill, and the rider, are only active for six months and will expire on Sept. 30.

The bad news is that the House Agriculture Committee last week passed an amendment to its 2013 Farm Bill that would revoke the rights of states to pass any GMO-labeling laws. The Organic Consumers Association is urging Congress to reject the so-called Protect Interstate Commerce Act, or PICA.

"Rather than fight this battle in every state, Monsanto is trying to manipulate Congress to pass a Farm Bill that will wipe out citizens’ rights to state laws intended to protect their health and safety," the organization stated.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has taken the opposite tack, introducing a bill in April dubbed the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, aimed at requiring the Food and Drug Administration to label such foods.

Unfortunately, given Congress’ track record of late, this tit-for-tat legislative approach could go on for quite some time.

But the fight doesn’t end there. Angered by the secretive and underhanded way in which the Monsanto Protection Act was signed into law, even if only temporarily, there is a grassroots effort under way to bring this issue to the forefront and compel Congress to act sooner rather than later. And serving as "command un-central" to link disparate groups on this issue through social media is none other than the Occupy Movement (remember them?).

What started about two months ago on Facebook as "a good idea" has grown exponentially to a worldwide demonstration planned for Saturday, May 25. Activists on six continents, in 36 countries and in 47 U.S. states -- totaling events in over 250 cities -- are coordinating demonstrations to occur simultaneously at 11 a.m. Pacific time under the general theme "March Against Monsanto."

These demonstrations may not accomplish anything right away, but at least it will keep the pressure on Congress and it will let companies like Monsanto know that the tide of public opinion is increasingly working against them.