The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to block the so-called DARK Act, a controversial bill championed by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. If passed, the bill would have prevented states from requiring labels on genetically modified foods, putting an end to many pending state labeling laws.
“Sen. Roberts’ legislation violates the will of the people of Vermont and the United States who overwhelmingly believe that genetically modified food should be labeled,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in a statement after the bill was blocked. “GMO labeling exists in 64 other countries. There is no reason it can’t exist here.”
What Are GMOs?
Murky debate, GMOs. Few food topics arouse such acrimony and zeal, even though the jury is still out on how noxious and harmful the things even are.
At the Co-op, we believe what most Americans do: consumers have the right to know the source of their food. That’s why legislation that threatens to undo hard-fought-for GMO labeling efforts gets our attention.
The science behind GMOs is complex, but the basic definition is simple. When we alter the genetic material of a living thing so it can do something new or different, we create a genetically modified organism or GMO. A GMO may be a bacterium that puts out human insulin or an insect-resistant corn plant.
What’s So Bad About That?
Life-saving insulin. Disease- and pest-resistant crops. What’s not to love? GMOs have undeniable advantages, or they wouldn’t exist in the first place. But there is also a big, whopping unknown—and that’s what worries people.
Human meddling to modify nature is nothing new and often innocuous. Farmers for centuries have been tweaking breeding methods to produce greater yields, grow larger plants and animals, and so on. But these historical practices relied on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms themselves. In the case of GMOs, labs create things that nature cannot. Critics contend that unforeseen consequences are inevitable and potentially dire, with health risks to humans that may include exposure to new allergens or the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes.
How Would Labeling Help?
Labeling doesn’t put an end to GMOs, but it does identify them. Mandatory labeling of GMO foods would, at the very least, give consumers the ability to know what they’re eating so they can make informed choices.
It’s an idea that has overwhelming, widespread support. In 2013, a New York Times poll indicated that more than 93 percent of respondents favored GMO labeling, and by 2014, 24 states were considering broad, sweeping legislation to label GMO foods. Vermont’s legislature led the way, passing the nation’s first law in 2014 mandating the labeling of genetically modified ingredients in packaged products.
Then came the DARK Act.
The DARK Act
HR 1599, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” proposed allowing for a national labeling system without actually requiring it—and that was the problem.
“Not a single company has ever voluntarily disclosed the presence of GMOs in its food,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an environmental think tank and advocacy organization. “Voluntary labeling does nothing to solve the confusion consumers face at the supermarket, nor does it provide them with the information overwhelming numbers of consumers clearly want.”
Known by detractors as the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know), HR 1599 hoped to block state labeling laws, close the door on a national GMO labeling standard, muddy the “natural” label, and establish a weak review process.
Critics of the DARK Act warn that the bill shouldn’t be considered dead in the water, as its underlying philosophy still has plenty of support from food and biotech companies that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars combating mandatory labeling. In short, the fight is far from over and more bills like the DARK Act are sure to come.