GMO Labeling Campaigns Enter New Battlegrounds

prop37-1-300x199This post was written by Future 500’s staff Brent Tarnow and Erik Wohlgemuth.

During a recent discussion with an executive for a major food producer who manages sustainability programs, we were surprised that the issue of labeling products containing GMOs was off her radar now that California’s Prop 37 was defeated. From a Future 500 perspective, fostering corporate-NGO engagement on contentious issues like GMO labeling, California is just the first battleground to label products containing GMOs.

California: The original GMO battleground

People interested in the GMO debate know that California voters were initially very supportive of passage of Prop 37, called “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” but it ultimately was narrowly rejected by voters because the bill had weaknesses that heavily funded industry groups leveraged to foment voter doubt. The bill would have resulted in the following restrictions on food sold in California:

Required labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.

Prohibited labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”

Exempted from this requirement foods that are “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”
(Original long-form summary of the State’s Official Voter Guide)

Prop 37 would have been the first law in the U.S. requiring labeling of foods containing GMOs.

While many food safety, consumer advocates, and anti-GMO stakeholders in the food movement were hopeful that California would be the first domino to fall in a series of states passing anti-GMO legislation, they are emboldened by the close vote despite heavy industry oppositions. As Michael Pollan wrote in an October piece for the New York Times, “Already, Prop 37 has ignited precisely the kind of debate — about the risks and benefits of genetically modified food; about transparency and the consumer’s right to know — that Monsanto and its allies have managed to stifle in Washington for nearly two decades.”

As anticipated, the coalition that mobilized around California’s Prop 37 is turning its attention to other states.

Washington State

Harnessing the support and publicity of California’s Prop 37 with its own I-522 initiative — “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” I-522 supporters have already gathered the required signatures to get the bill presented before the Legislature in the next session. The bill relies heavily on Prop 37′s language with some sections nearly identical. When before Legislature, which rejected a similar GMO food labeling law last year, lawmakers will have three options: (1) pass I-522 as written without a popular vote on the measure; (2) reject the initiative or refuse to act on it, putting the bill to a popular vote in the November 2013 election; or (3) putting both I-522 and a legislatively created alternative to a popular vote. (Morrison & Foerstor, United States: GMO Laws Spread To Washington And New Mexico, January 22, 2013)

While Prop 37 and I-522 are quite similar, I-522 seeks to exclude language that hampered the passage of California’s bill. Specifically, I-522 excludes a prohibition on labeling genetically modified or processed foods as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or other potentially misleading words, which was a key sticking point in California’s Prop 37 debate.

If passed, I-522 would become enforceable on July 1, 2015.

New Mexico

New Mexico’s proposed GMO law takes a slightly different tack. Rather than creating new legislation, Senate Bill 18 aims to amend the existing New Mexico Food Act. Amendments will include provisions requiring GMO labeling for foods and beverages (for animal consumption as well), and chewing gum.

SB 18 is considerably more rigorous than the measures proposed in California and Washington, which included several exceptions. For instance, SB 18 would apply to food sold in restaurants and to retail food products, holding them responsible for labeling GMOs, excluding suppliers from liability. Exemptions for the cattle, poultry, or alcoholic beverage industries – notable in California and Washington – would be excluded.

Oregon and Others

While Washington and New Mexico are the only states currently considering formal labeling initiatives, several states are mobilizing. ”GMO Free Oregon” is actively collecting the necessary signatures to place a similar labeling initiative on the 2014 ballot. Southern Oregon’s Jackson County has already completed procedures to get a proposed GMO ban on the 2014 county ballot.

According to information from the NON-GMO Project, 23 states are now working on mandatory GMO labeling initiatives, including Vermont, Illinois, Virginia, the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, New York, Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado.

What seems clear from GMO labeling advocates is that they learned valuable lessons from the narrow defeat in California. As labeling initiatives spread to other states, GMO labeling campaigns are getting better prepared to counter significant industry opposition by correcting weaknesses in prior bills, increase their funding, and by targeting individual brands they see as vulnerable to consumer pressure, most recently General Mills.

This battle will likely ensue for several years and ultimately, measure(s) will likely pass, given that many other countries around the world, notably in the EU and Asia, already regulate the labeling of GMOs in varying degrees. Predictably, some industry players will aggressively seek to protect their business models, creating opportunities for progressive companies seeking to get ahead of the issue to proactively engage strategic NGO decision makers to frame legislation that disadvantages their competitors, enabling NGOs to praise the leaders and shame the laggards, creating a race to the top dynamic.

Image Credit: Millions Against Monsanto

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