The Senate Agriculture Committee’s approval Tuesday of a bill that would stop states from labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms and require the Agriculture Department to set up a voluntary labeling program is a major victory for the farmers, food companies, and retailers that oppose labeling. But it is only a minor move in a much larger battle over consumer reaction to the industrialization of the food supply.
Genetically modifying a plant or animal by taking a gene from one species and putting it in another is controversial. Scientists say the food from this process is safe and should not require a label, while opponents, including the organic food industry, say consumers have the right to know what is in their food.
The bill, written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, passed the committee by a big margin—14 to 6. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, voted against the Roberts bill and said she believes federal labeling should be mandatory. But Stabenow said she believes a bill can pass the Senate. The House has passed its own measure, but is expected to concur with the Senate bill. Roberts said he believes President Obama would sign his bill.
The decision of three Democratic senators—Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—to join all the committee Republicans in supporting the measure came as a surprise.
But Klobuchar’s decision to be the Democrats’ spokeswoman on the bill was a shock. Klobuchar is regarded as a liberal with a base in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, but Minnesota is also a big ag state, home to many food companies as well as farms. Klobuchar said she would vote to advance it because of the costs that labeling would impose on the economy, and because of her belief in science. Klobuchar said she believes in the consumers’ right to know but that consumers “have the right to know … what we are dealing with is a safe product.”
Klobuchar may have made her strongest argument when she noted that the Vermont labeling law, which would go into effect on July 1, exempts dairy, the state’s biggest agricultural product, but labeling laws in neighboring Maine and Connecticut do not exempt dairy.
“We cannot have this patchwork of laws,” she said.
Klobuchar and Donnelly are working on a bill that would require the Agriculture Department to establish a voluntary national bioengineering food-labeling standard within one year.
But Heitkamp said she doesn’t know if the voluntary standard “is enough” and that the committee would be wrong “if we think this debate is over after we take this vote and go to the [Senate] floor.”
Heitkamp noted that polls show 90 percent of North Dakotans want GMO labeling. “We can say they don’t know what they are talking about, but I usually don’t say that to my constituents,” she said.
The problem, Heitkamp added, is that “we use scientific studies and all Americans hear is ‘blah, blah, blah.’” Grocery companies continue to respond to consumer demands for more information, she said.
Klobuchar, Heitkamp, and Stabenow all have a heightened interest in genetic modification because they represent sugar-beet growers who are using genetically modified seed. Beet sugar deliveries are down 9.5 percent in the last three months, while cane sugar sales have risen as Hershey’s and other companies shift to cane sugar, which is not genetically modified.
Last week, at the International Sweetener Colloquium, a meeting of industrial sugar users, in Aventura, Florida, Duane Grant, a sugar-beet grower from Idaho, pleaded with the representatives of branded food companies to tell consumers that genetically modified sugar beets are better for the environment because they use less water and pesticides and produce higher yields.
The cane companies are now quite willing to exploit what they believe consumers see as purity, even though scientists say there is no difference between beet and cane sugar. C&H, a cane sugar brand in California, has begun marketing its sugar as “Non-GMO” and free of beet sugar. One cane refiner said his company wants to label its sugar as GMO-free, but the line for certification from the Non-GMO Project is so long it may take a year before the company can make that claim.
Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity, a group that consults with food companies on communications with consumers, told the sweetener users that GMOs are a symbol of consumers’ distrust of Big Food.
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, the industry group that opposes mandatory labeling, said Tuesday, “We see no major road bumps that will slow the momentum at our backs.”
Big Food may be right that Congress will pass a bill banning state labeling and send it to Obama, but Heitkamp is right that the consumer demands will continue—and that the companies will continue to believe the customer is always right.
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