GMO labeling: What’s next in legislation?


By now you probably know that the California ballot initiative to require labeling of most products containing GMOs, Proposition 37, did not pass in November. (For a primer on the issue, read http://theorganicadventurer.com/2012/10/03/catch-up-time-part-2-gmo-labeling/). The California Secretary of State’s Statement of Vote, the official final vote tally, was certified on December 17 and reflected 51.4% voting no on the initiative and 48.6% voting yes (http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/sov/2012-general/sov-complete.pdf). Less than three percentage points is a pretty narrow margin and represents a difference of 353,657 votes.

Graphic courtesy www.cornucopia.org. Click for larger image.

The result was such a blow to the pro-labeling camp mostly because, up until a couple of weeks before the vote, polling showed that the initiative would pass pretty easily. That margin quickly eroded and then went the other way when the big chemical and agribusiness companies used the $46 million they had collected for the effort to blanket California with television and radio ads. The labeling side’s $9 million was simply no match. There are also allegations – credible ones as far as we can tell – that the anti-labeling camp engaged in lies, gross misrepresentations, and actual law breaking in the form of misusing a federal seal in one of their ads, prompting the California Right to Know campaign manager to request that the Department of Justice conduct a criminal investigation (http://www.carighttoknow.org/possiblefraud). You can read more about the kinds of deeds that got Prop 37 defeated at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michele-simon/prop-37-defeated_b_2087782.html.

Some would like to see consumers boycott the brands of companies that helped defeat Prop 37. Graphic courtesy www.organicconsumers.org.

There were certainly valuable lessons to learn from the loss for those who wish to see GMO foods labeled, but those groups also wisely began to look forward. There is a long battle ahead, much has happened since November and much is coming up in the fight for Americans’ right to be fully informed when making purchasing decisions.

Vermont was actually working on a bill (H.722) to require labeling of GMO products back in April of 2012, long before California’s vote. For lack of a better way to put it, though, the Vermont legislature chickened out amid Monsanto’s threats to sue the state should it pass, and delays meant the bill didn’t have time to get all the way through the legislature before the session ended. But the Vermont Right to Know Campaign and the (now larger) number of Vermont legislators who support labeling went right back to work. In late January, they introduced a new labeling bill, H.122.

Graphic courtesy www.vtrighttoknow.org

One interesting difference from bills introduced in other states is that Vermont’s is more specific on a variety of points, including that the FDA’s policy on GMOs, which means that it doesn’t do any independent testing of its own, is responsible for the public’s uncertainty (see pages 2-3 of the bill); the adverse health, agricultural and environmental effects of GMOs; the basis in constitutional precedent for such a bill; the requirement that GMO foods not be labeled “natural” in any way; and more. Testimony is now being heard in the House Agriculture Committee, the same committee where all of the foot-dragging took place last year. A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the Vermont Senate soon. To keep up with events in Vermont, check out http://www.vtrighttoknow.org/, and read the text of the bill at http://www.cedarcirclefarm.org/images/email/H-112.pdf.

Graphic courtesy www.gmofreect.org.

Connecticut’s experience last spring with HB-5117 (http://www.cga.ct.gov/2012/TOB/h/pdf/2012HB-05117-R00-HB.pdf) was very similar to Vermont’s. It didn’t make it out of the Environment Committee with the labeling provisions intact. Legislators introduced a new labeling bill early this February, HB-6418, which was referred to the Joint Committee on Public Health on February 14. We’ve only been able to find the text of the proposal so far (http://www.cga.ct.gov/2013/TOB/H/2013HB-06418-R00-HB.htm) but it’s probably not all that different from HB-5117. Keep an eye on http://gmofreect.org and http://www.ctnofa.org/index.htm for updates.

The state of Washington, presumably having learned from the California and Oregon experiences, is coming at labeling with a two-pronged approach. Those in favor of labeling have managed to gather enough signatures to ensure that voters will be able to vote for labeling at the state level this coming November when they vote on I-522, The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, which you can read the full text of here: http://www.labelitwa.org/. Just in case, though, voters will also weigh in on House Bill 1407 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/documents/billdocs/2013-14/Pdf/Bills/House%20Bills/1407.pdf), which will give local governments the ability to decide how to deal with labeling and production of GMOs in their municipalities.

Graphic courtesy www.labelitwa.org.

The text of I-522 has much in common with California’s defeated Proposition 37. There are, however, important differences such as stiffer penalties with Washington’s initiative and the interesting fact that the Washington initiative specifically points out the harm that unlabeled GMO products would do to its exports to the 50 countries that have banned GMO products and are rightfully suspicious of American agricultural imports. Supporters expect to face all of the same types of arguments and opposition tactics as did supporters of the labeling initiative in California.

Graphic courtesy www.labelgmos.org.

House Bill 1407 was inspired by events in Washington’s San Juan County. That municipality took matters into its own hands and banned the cultivation of GMOs within its boundaries, prompting the state legislature to offer that option to all its municipalities with HB 1407. Should I-522 pass, mandating labeling at the state level, none of the HB 1407 provisions would override it. They would simply give localities more control, should they wish to exercise it. The hope is that by putting the power to restrict GMO cultivation and production in the hands of countless municipalities rather than the state, it will be even harder for corporations to quash the effort—think of many fast-moving targets as opposed to one slower-moving target.

Meanwhile, Hawai‘i has been quietly working away for a number of years on its own GMO labeling legislation. Why Hawai‘i gets overlooked in these matters is perplexing (and has been an advantage to the major agribusiness corporations) since it’s a serious hotspot for GMO test fields. Dupont Pioneer, DOW, Syngenta and BASF own or rent 12,400 acres on Kaua‘i alone.

GMO test fields and their owners. If the organic farm surrounded by them grows any of the test crops, it won't be organic for long. Graphic courtesy www.facebook.com/HawaiiGMOJustice.

These GMO test fields on Oahu surround a neighborhood and a school. Graphic courtesy www.facebook.com/HawaiiGMOJustice.

Nevertheless, a couple of weeks ago its House Committee on Agriculture approved HB 174. The victory was tempered a bit because the bill originally required labeling of all GMO foods produced or sold in Hawai‘i, but was revised to apply only to foods imported for sale to Hawai‘i. It now needs a hearing in the House Finance Committee. It was one of about a dozen bills before the legislature at the beginning of the session seeking to label, ban or regulate GMOs in Hawai‘i. To keep up with what’s going on in Hawai‘i, like www.facebook.com/LabelItHawaii. The organization Hawai‘i Seed, http://hawaiiseed.org/, also has some good information. The legislation, its progress and all related testimony can be viewed at http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/measurekeywordsearch.aspx?query=genetically%20modified.

Graphic courtesy www.facebook.com/LabelItHawaii.

So that’s pretty much where things stand on the policy side of GMOs, but there has also been much recent activity in the areas of development and research and the science surrounding genetically modified organisms. That will be the subject of our next post. We’ll be reporting, likely via Facebook and Twitter (@OrgAdventurer), on major developments in legislation as they happen, so please like and follow us to receive those updates. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts or questions on the issue of GMOs and labeling, please comment!

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