Debating GMOs in Congress and in the Streets

A labeling amendment to the Farm Bill was defeated just days before two million people across the globe took part in anti-Monsanto protests.

Worldwide, two million people in 52 countries participated in the 'March Against Monsanto' protest. (Photo: Robyn Beck / Getty Images)

May 29, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Two days before two million people in cities around the world would demonstrate against Monsanto and genetically modified food, Senators here in the United States struck down an amendment that would allow states to regulate the labeling of GMO foods.

The amendment, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as part of the massive, wide-ranging Farm Bill, was overwhelmingly rejected by Senators on Thursday in a 71-27 vote. The amendment would have supported and clarified the existing rights of states to enact their own laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

“Considering that loyal states’ rights Senators like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) didn’t vote for the amendment shows the tremendous lengths that biotech companies like Monsanto went to defeat the amendment and distort the meaning about the amendment,” Colin O’Neil, Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Food Safety, tells TakePart.

Twenty-six states have introduced labeling laws so far this year, and there’s a very real possibility of bills passing in a number of legislatures. The state Senate in both Vermont and Connecticut passed labeling bills this month that have a good chance of being signed into law, and New York may soon pass a law too. But Sanders fears that without clarification on the rights of states to regulate the industry, agribusiness and Big Food companies would be able to sue the states for preempting federal authority.

Genetically modified crops like soybeans and corn are big business in many agriculture states, and in turn, lawmakers representing farming constituencies strongly opposed the amendment on Thursday. But in defending their “no” votes, Senators sounded like apologists for the virtues of GE crops.

“This particular amendment would interfere with the FDA's science-based process to determine what food labeling is necessary for consumers,” Debbie Stabenow (D-MI.), the chair of the Agriculture Committee, told The Huffington Post. “It's also important to note that around the world now we are seeing genetically modified crops that have the ability to resist crop diseases and improve nutritional content and survive drought conditions in many developing countries.”

The timing of Thursday’s vote was interesting, considering that two days later an incredible two million protesters would take to the streets in 536 cities in 52 countries in the multinational “March Against Monsanto.” Carrying signs with sayings like, “Plant Seed, Not Greed” and “OMG GMO WTF,” protesters rallied for labeling initiatives and restrictions on GE foods, but also voiced a general distaste for Monsanto. Sixty-four countries require GMO foods to be labeled and GE foods are banned altogether in several other nations—but not the United States.

Despite the defeat of Sanders’ GMO labeling amendment, sustainable food advocates need not hang their heads just yet: The Senate will likely pick up arguments for or against several important amendments involving GE foods when it reconvenes next Monday. These include:

  • Boxer amendment (#1026) in support of mandatory GMO labeling, as well as her amendment requesting that the FDA and USDA study the 64 countries around the world that already require GMO labeling.
  • Begich amendment (# 934) to ban the sale of genetically engineered salmon until federal wildlife agencies are properly consulted.
  • Merkley amendment (#978) to repeal the “Monsanto Protection Act” provision in the 2013 government spending bill, which serverly limited judicial oversight of genetically engineered crops.
  • Boxer amendment (#1027) to protect honey bees and native pollinators, which declined by over 45 percent last winter as a result of pesticides and industrial agriculture.
  • Tester amendment to reinvigorate public plant and animal breeding, which has hit an all-time low because of private sector domination by companies like Monsanto.

“The best way for people to get the fairest, most sustainable Farm Bill is to call their Senators in support of these vital amendments,” says O’Neil of the Center for Food Safety.