Last year was a pivotal time for the GMO labeling movement. Federal agencies approved several new genetically modified foods, including AquAdvantage salmon—the first GMO animal approved for sale and consumption. Meanwhile, Congress debated the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (SAFLA), which was dubbed the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know, or DARK, Act by consumer advocacy groups because it aimed to block mandatory GMO labeling at the state and national levels.
It was widely expected that Congress would pass SAFLA before the end of 2015, or if the standalone bill failed, that anti-labeling groups would ultimately succeed by inserting the bill’s language into a “must-pass” budget bill.
That didn’t happen. Despite millions spent in lobbying efforts, SAFLA did not pass. Not only that, but GMO labeling advocates scored an important symbolic win when lawmakers passed a budget bill which includes language requiring FDA to create labeling guidelines for GMO salmon before it can enter the marketplace.*
Throughout 2015, National Co+op Grocers, Just Label It, Environmental Working Group, and Center For Food Safety, worked tirelessly to shape a discussion that has gone from being a slam-dunk against mandatory labeling to one that has brought all parties to the negotiating table. “The fact that Congress rejected SAFLA in 2015 speaks volumes about the GMO labeling movement’s efforts and its impact,” said Robynn Shrader, CEO of NCG.
As of January, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has held two private, confidential meetings with five participants from the GMO labeling movement and five participants representing those who oppose mandatory GMO labeling. The goal is to find a workable solution for labeling foods that are produced using genetic engineering.
“Congress heard our voices loud and clear in 2015,” said Allie Mentzer, advocacy specialist. “NCG and our partners did a good job of informing the public about this issue, and giving people the tools they needed to contact Congress effectively. That lawmakers heard from their constituents in favor of mandatory labeling played a major role in bringing labeling opponents to the negotiating table.” Shortly after the bill was introduced in March 2015, NCG created a Consumer Call-to-Action Toolkit so that its member co-ops could quickly and easily inform their shoppers on this issue.
“GMO labeling may be the single most important topic among our members, ever,” said North Coast Co-op’s marketing director, Melanie Bettenhausen. Their food co-op in Arcata, Calif. has been actively involved in the issue since California’s Prop 37 labeling efforts in 2012. “Without NCG’s support and partnership with other labeling efforts, we would not have seen the recent success in Congress, whereby the ‘DARK’ Act did not pass. Not only that, but NCG provided the most up to date information along the way with clear instructions for how best to share it,” she said. Stephanie Mandel, marketing manager at BriarPatch Co-op in Grass Valley, Calif. concurred. “We’ve been educating people about GMOs since the early 2000s, and in recent years it’s been amazing to see the powerful momentum building for GMO labeling.”
It’s tough to predict the eventual outcome of the Secretary of Agriculture’s negotiations or what kind of legislation will come out of Congress in 2016, but the fact that industry giant Campbell’s Soup Co. has announced it has become a proponent of mandatory GMO labeling has changed the tenor of the debate. “It’s highly unlikely that any legislation will give us exactly what we want, but as we come to the negotiating table, it’s important to recognize that the GMO labeling movement has already succeeded by advancing this conversation, bringing those who were once staunchly opposed to any form of GMO labeling around to see the necessity of giving consumers the information they need to make their own purchasing decisions,” Shrader said.
*This is a symbolic win because the budget bill is set to expire before the first GMO salmon mature and come to market in 2017. Nevertheless, it sets an important precedent and demonstrates lawmakers’ growing support for consumers’ right-to-know.