Deadline Quickly Approaching For U.S. Senate To Pass National GMO Labeling Standard

By: Charles F. Conner

In just a few weeks, Vermont’s state mandate on labeling genetically engineered foods will become the de facto standard for the entire nation, which will disrupt America’s food supply chain and increase costs for consumers, farmers and manufacturers.

This is a critical matter, and it’s been clear for months that action by Congress is needed to stop the Vermont law and a patchwork of other state labeling mandates by adopting legislation creating a national food labeling standard for foods made with genetically modified organisms.

But while the need is clear and the consequences of inaction real, the fact is that the Senate has not found a common-sense compromise that can get the votes required to move the bill forward.

The Senate voted on one proposal in March 16, but it failed to get enough votes to move forward. This was a procedural vote, not on the merits of the bill. Many of those voting against that proposal said they supported a federal bill, but thought a better plan was needed.

That was 11 weeks ago, more than enough time to develop a bipartisan compromise. Senators whose only vote on this issue has been to block action on a vital bill will have a tough time explaining to their constituents why they allowed the clock to run out without passing common-sense, bipartisan legislation that increases disclosure without the negative impacts of on-pack labeling.

Democrats and Republicans such as Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Al Franken of Minnesota, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Susan Collins of Maine and Tim Kaine of Virginia should be engaging with leaders of the full Senate and Senate Agriculture Committee to get agreement on a bipartisan compromise — and get it passed.

Failure to act is essentially endorsing Vermont’s labeling mandate and everything that goes with it.

And there is no time to waste before the Vermont law goes into effect July 1. That’s because even if the Senate finds a compromise and passes it — which has been the holdup — that legislation must also pass through the House before heading to the President, With the House out of session the last week of June because of the July 4th holiday, the Senate effectively is left with only a handful of days to get legislation passed.

Vermont’s unprecedented move to become the first state to implement its own labeling standard for foods made with GMOs will have effects on the marketplace far beyond the small state. Because Congress has failed to put in place a national food labeling standard, some companies have been forced to make changes on the fly that will have a dramatic impact on our nation’s agricultural economy, all in order to address the complications of one state’s law. Some companies have announced they are moving away from GMO ingredients all together. Every result carries its own set of complications, costs and consequences.

Labeling foods across the country in accordance with Vermont’s law not only gives a state with only 600,000 residents outsized power, it will also prove unworkable as soon as another state passes its own labeling standard, which is almost certain to happen.

And food companies moving away from GMOs, or biotechnology, will have far reaching consequences not only on our food supply and agricultural economy, but could even impact world trade and commodity markets. And while farmers and food companies will be the first to feel the impacts, consumers will soon enough see their grocery bills rise as a result. Some families could even see their food costs spike by as much as $1,000 a year.

It is time for these Senators and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do their part to push for a compromise bill and get it passed. Interesting proposals have already been put forward that would require disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients in food and beverage products through a QR code, 1–800 number, website, or package label. This will provide consumers with more information about the foods they buy without raising prices for everyone. It’s a reasonable solution that can gain the support of food companies, farmers and consumers.

But the clock is quickly running out, and talk won’t do it any longer. Those who say they support a federal bill to address this serious problem need to match their words with action.

Charles F. Conner is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC).

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