I've written a lot about mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods over the past couple years, and given current events, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about ongoing developments. Given that the Senate has now passed a mandatory labeling law, and discussion has moved to the House, it appears the stars may be aligning such that a nationwide mandatory GMO labeling will become a reality.
The national law would preempt state efforts to enact their own labeling laws, and it would require mandatory labeling of some genetically engineered foods (there are many exemptions and it is unclear whether the mandatory labels would be required on only foods that contain genetic material or also those - such as oil and sugar - which do not). Food manufacturers and retailers can comply with the law in a variety of ways including on-package labeling and via QR codes. Smaller manufacturers can comply by providing a web link or phone number for further information.
Many groups that have, in the past, advocated for mandatory labeling are against the bill because, they say, it doesn't go far enough (e.g., this group is upset because it doesn't "drive Frankenfoods . . . off the market."). Other anti-mandatory labeling folks also don't like the bill because of philosophical opposition to signalling out a technology that poses no added safety risks.
I suppose this is how democracy works. Compromise. Neither side got everything they wanted, but at least from my perspective, this is a law that provides some form of labeling, which will hopefully shelve this issue and allow us to move on to more important things in a way that is likely to have the least detrimental economic effects.
I'm sympathetic to the arguments made by folks who continue to oppose mandatory labeling on the premise that our laws shouldn't be stigmatizing biotechnology. Because a GMO isn't a single "thing" I agree the law is unhelpful insofar as giving consumers useful information about safety or environmental impact. The law is also a bit hypocritical in terms of exempting some types of GMOs and not others. One might also rightfully worry about when the government should have the power to compel speech and when it shouldn't. And, I think we should be worried about laws which potentially hinder innovation in the food sector.
But, here's the deal. The Vermont law was soon going into effect anyway. The question wasn't whether a mandatory labeling law was going into effect but rather what kind. The Vermont law was already starting have some impact in that state and would likely have had nationwide impacts. Moreover, there didn't seem to be a practical legal or legislative way to prevent the law from going into effect in the foreseeable future.
The worst economic consequences of mandatory labeling would have come about from those types of labels that were most likely to be perceived by consumers as a "skull and cross bones". In my mind the current Senate bill avoided this worst case scenario while giving those consumers who really want to know about GMO content a means for making that determination. That doesn't mean some anti-GMO groups won't use the labels as a way of singling out for protest companies that use foods and ingredients made with the technology, but at least the motives are more transparent in this case. For some groups it was never about labeling anyway - it was about opposition to the technology. That, in my opinion, is a much less tenable position, and is one that will hopefully be less successful in the long run.