Are GMO Labeling Laws Inevitable?

GMO labeling laws are in the works in Big Ag’s backyard: Iowa and Illinois.

GMO labeling laws could be the norm someday soon. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Feb 19, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

California’s ballyhooed GMO labeling initiative may have curled up and died at the voting booth last November, but is the labeling of genetically modified foods inevitable? It’s starting to look that way.

Just last week, Iowa Senator Joe Bolkom introduced a bill requiring labeling of food that contains more than 0.9 percent genetically modified ingredients. That’s right: Iowa, home to 2.3 billion bushels of corn, and 466 million bushels of soybean, the majority of it genetically modified, is taking up the cause. And in neighboring corn- and soybean-loving Illinois, lawmaker Dave Koehler introduced a similar bill last week.

This week in Colorado, groups are trying to rally pro-labeling folks to pack a hearing on GMO labeling bill HB.1192, scheduled for Thursday. While tomorrow, Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Jared Polis plans to formally announce his own federal GMO Labeling Bill.

And that’s only some of the action.

Earlier this month, Maryland lawmaker Glen Glass introduced a bill requiring the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. A hearing on his bill is scheduled for next week.

Despite a defeat last year, Vermont is trying again with new legislation that would require labeling of genetically modified ingredients. Vermont lawmakers heard from Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield last week as he testified at a hearing on the effort.

The issue is bubbling up in Idaho as well. This morning’s agenda for the state’s Senate Agriculture Affairs Committee includes a briefing on GMOs by Monsanto’s George Gough and Trent Clark. Yesterday, the House heard from Monsanto in a meeting attended by members of GMO Free Idaho.

And according to Maui News, Hawaii’s House Committee on Agriculture passed a measure requiring labeling on genetically modified foods earlier this month, but it was amended to apply only to produce imported from outside Hawaii. Still, it’s a victory, albeit a small one, for labeling advocates. (In fact, the Center for Food Safety shows seven bills introduced in Hawaii that would impact labeling requirements or sales of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.)

In Washington, one of the most-watched states on the GMO labeling front, last week’s public hearing on Intiative 522 (a ballot measure similar to California’s Prop 37) allowed for both sides to be heard in front of lawmakers.

But Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and president of Eat, Drink, Politics consulting in Oakland, Calif., warns that despite the flurry of activity, there could be a dark cloud on the horizon: a legal concept known as preemption.

“Preemption simply means that a higher law trumps a lower law: So federal trumps state, and state trumps local. But in practice, it’s industry’s way of ensuring uniformity and stopping grassroots efforts,” she writes on her blog.

“Here is the pattern: a grassroots effort builds over time to enact local or state laws (such as gun control, indoor-smoking laws, or restricting alcohol sales), and industry fights these efforts for years, until they can no longer win. At that point, industry lobbyists turn around and either get their own weak bill passed, or work with advocates to pass a compromise version. In exchange, this law will preempt or prevent any state or city from passing a different or stronger law. Forever.”

Simon tells TakePart in a telephone interview that she doesn’t think anything will happen at the federal level until one state (or maybe even several) enact a GMO labeling law—a scenario she thinks could happen by next year.

“But once states start getting traction, you get the attention of federal law makers and the attention of industry,” she says.