Later this week, the Senate is scheduled to vote on S. 764, the GMO labeling compromise reached by Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), which would create a federal labeling requirement for GMO products.
The Roberts-Stabenow bill is in response to an onerous Vermont law that requires GMO labeling on product packages themselves. S. 764 would preempt this law to allow for alternative disclosure methods, such as bar codes and websites, but it would still create a nationwide requirement that information about genetic engineering be conveyed. As such, S. 764 takes one bad law in one state and expands its premises to all 50 states. While it may make it easier for companies doing business in Vermont, this legislation ignores all the food manufacturers that do not do business in Vermont. Those companies will now have to comply with a massive new federal regulatory regime that they otherwise would not have to address.
While the food industry has legitimate claims against the burdens of the Vermont law, S. 764 is a misguided overreach by the federal government. If the burden of Vermont's food labeling law is so bad, the food industry could simply stop selling its food in Vermont, thereby forcing them to face predictable consequences of their own bad law. There is also not yet an overly burdensome "patchwork" of state laws that would even begin to justify federal preemption in this manner. As the Heritage Foundation's Daren Bakst explains:
The food industry has a legitimate concern regarding labeling costs. However, these costs pale in comparison to the much bigger problems with mandatory labeling in general; problems that are made far worse by the federal government ensuring that labeling requirements exist in all states and providing legitimacy to mandatory labeling.
Perhaps worst of all, this bill puts federal legitimacy behind a dangerous movement intent on American agriculture. Just in recent weeks, the House of Representatives released their "Better Way" regulatory paper, which correctly touched on this issue, noting:
A vocal minority of citizens are creating doubt in the minds of many consumers and policymakers through misinformation about the safety of genetically engineered inputs. This misinformation is influencing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels and could threaten our farmers' ability to feed an ever-growing population and increase the cost of food for consumers.
And, as Heritage's Bakst continues:
Genetic engineering is widely used in agriculture. Genetically engineered crops include alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. About half of U.S. cropland (169 million acres) was used to grow genetically engineered corn, cotton, and soybeans in 2013. Policymakers should be aware of the harm that labeling would create for farmers and states that grow a significant amount of genetically engineered crops, as well as for consumers.
Instead of overreacting to one bad law in one state, Congress should take a step back before instituting a new labeling mandate. For instance, the House approach, H.R. 1599, which passed with 275 votes, simply preempted Vermont's law and instead created a voluntary labeling standard. The heavy-handed Senate approach, in contrast, will lead to harmful repercussions for consumers, agriculture, and technological innovations that can help feed the world.