Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

Still in the dark on labeling

No doubt, this week has been a tough one for advocates of transparency in food and farming. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee spent Wednesday debating the merits of labeling genetically engineered food — and foreshadowing bigger congressional fights in 2015 — while the Oregon GE labeling initiative was handed a near-certain defeat by the courts.

H.R. 4432 (Pompeo), dubbed by critics as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (or DARK) Act, will likely be reintroduced early next year. And if passed, it would undermine any state or local mandates for labeling GE food — keeping U.S. consumers in the dark about the foods we eat and the way they're grown.

And the debate during Wednesday's hearing was familiar, mirroring points made during state-level efforts. On one side you had folks from Just Label It and a Vermont legislator representing public interests, and on the other you had pesticide and junk food corporations arguing for their interests. Former Monsanto researcher turned University of California – Davis extension specialist Alison Van Eenennaam was there too, on the side of Big Ag, calling for the passage of Pompeo's bill and undercutting labeling efforts around the country.

More than anything, the DARK Act hearing highlighted the need for a clear and comprehensive federal labeling standard — and one, I'd hope, more rigorous than the flawed "voluntary" labeling included in Rep. Pompeo's (R-KS) bill. 

Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) re-introduced such a proposal earlier this year, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 1699/S. 908). This act would direct the Food and Drug Administration to use its authority to enact a federal, mandatory GE labeling policy. Unfortunately, it was never given a hearing.

Razor thin defeat in Oregon

After a judge ruled that ballots in contention would not be counted, the Yes on 92 campaign — the Oregon initiative to label GE food — posted a statement on their website today:

Given the razor thin margin in this race, and the failure to count every valid ballot, we believe that Oregonians will never know for sure what the true outcome of this race was. That said, we intend to abide by the judge’s decision and will not pursue any further legal action.

Before the historic recount, approximately 800 votes separated those in favor and against the measure. And a lawsuit filed earlier in the week was meant to include some 4,600 supportive ballots.

So Oregon was not defeated because of popular vote, but the mechanics of the recount process and challenging of thrown-out ballots have left the end result murky. The Oregon Secretary of State will likely certify this less-than-certain outcome tomorrow.

The Oregon results are another narrow defeat for state-based labeling efforts, following some wins in Maine, Connecticut and Vermont. While the movement has learned and applied lessons from the slim losses in Washington and in California, money in politics remains fundamental.

Three of the world’s largest six pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations spent more than $11.5 million to defeat the Oregon labeling initiative. And in the same election, two of these corporations — Monsanto and Dow — spent nearly $6 million.

Still, popular support for labeling genetically engineered food — for knowing what's in our food and how it's grown — is only gaining momentum. We have a right to know, and we will.

Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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