The looming July 1 implementation date for Vermont’s first-of-a-kind, historic GMO food ingredients labeling law pushed Monsanto and other corporate giants in retailing, biotechnology, and agribusiness into overdrive as they ramped up pressure on Congress to negate the state law.
Labeling opponents wisely identified Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, as the key to crafting what they described as a “compromise” bill. Stabenow’s bill was able to move enough Senate Democrats to join with an already solid block of Republicans to muscle through its swift passage.
Ardent GMO backer, Senate Agriculture Chair Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) called it “the most important agriculture vote in 20 years.” When signed into law by the President in late July, it preempted Vermont’s new law, mandatory GMO seed labeling requirements in two states, and dozens of related local ordinances.
But what has been rightly called the DARK Act would not have been possible without the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a few of its most powerful members, and two corporate-funded non-profit organizations — Just Label It (JLI) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
JLI, founded by Stonyfield Yogurt chairman Gary Hirshberg, and the EWG signaled their support for an agribusiness-supported alternative to actual GMO labeling, Quick Response (QR) codes, those inscrutable Rorschach-like images found on some product packaging.
The scanning of these speckled black squares with a smart phone and the appropriate app can provide more product information. These QR codes were sold as a solution to food labeling requirements and became an integral part of the Stabenow Bill. Millions of Americans are now discriminated against by not having smart phones and/or sufficient data plans.
The full Senate vote was only made possible when its backers invoked an obscure procedural gimmick that hadn’t been used in more than 40 years to push it forward.
Its next hurdle would be a cloture vote, a 60-vote threshold required to halt a filibuster and debate on a bill and force a final vote on the Senate floor. By early July grassroots organic and pro-labeling forces were mobilizing to fight the cloture vote.
The nation’s largest consumer organization, Consumer Reports, along with the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Cornucopia, and dozens of others were publicly calling on the Senate to reject the bill, hundreds of thousands of their members flooding Senate phone lines.
Key Senators also spoke out against the bill. And the Food and Drug Administration — the primary agency overseeing food labeling — issued a damning assessment of the bill’s many deficiencies.
Behind the scenes, the OTA and its leadership quietly worked for passage. This activity persuaded enough reluctant Democratic Senators to ignore what had become a loud call for rejection from fellow Senators, 286 public interest organizations, thousands of phone calls from the public, and broad condemnation by the organic community.
Along with executives from companies like Stonyfield, Organic Valley, Smuckers, WhiteWave, and Whole Foods, OTA lobbyists assured Senators that “the majority of the organic industry supported the Stabenow Bill.”
One senate staffer told the bill’s opponents that OTA’s lobbying convinced 15-20 senators who might have opposed the bill (and had opposed an earlier version of the DARK Act) to instead support it.
The corporate-organic industry sell-out facilitated a successful cloture vote that passed by a 65-32 margin. Senate and House passage of the actual bill followed shortly.
Aside from overriding state and local laws, what are some of the DARK Act’s other fundamental deficiencies?
- There is no requirement for on-package labeling of GMO foods.
- As many as 100 million Americans lack the ability to find out product specifics by not being able to access QR codes.
- The biotech-friendly USDA — not the FDA — is charged with creating the law’s actual labeling rules over the next two years.
- The bill leaves totally unclear what will be considered a GMO food and/or ingredient. According to the FDA, most foods typically thought of as being produced or made with GMO ingredients will not be covered by the bill’s narrow definition of genetic engineering. The USDA might raise the threshold for incidental GMO contamination from the currently accepted .09% to as high as 30% while still calling that non-GMO!
- The bill suggests that the USDA harmonize its ultimate definition of genetic engineering with the organic law’s definitions — something that could create a huge loophole into organic’s current strict prohibitions on GMO technology.
“The passage of this law will deny, for the foreseeable future, the right of most American’s to know what is in the food they are eating,” observes Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst, Mark Kastel. “It is vitally important that we double down on our efforts to protect the integrity of the organic label, the marketplace alternative to untested GMO technology.”
The Cornucopia Institute and a number of our allies in this fight are researching joining forces in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of some of the aspects of this draconian piece of legislation.
[This article was previously published in the fall issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]