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Jan Lee headshot

Think the DARK Act Was Defeated? Not So Fast

Words by Jan Lee

If you've been following the debate over labeling standards for genetically modified organisms (GMO) in foods, you've probably heard the latest: The so-called DARK Act (deny Americans the right to know) was defeated in the Senate last week. It's done. Dead. Finally gone.

Well, sort of. Actually ... No, it isn't.

The supposed demise of the Senate bill that would have had blocked states' ability to independently regulate GMO labeling has been lauded by environmentalists as a win for consumers' right to know. So is General Mills' announcement that it would  start disclosing GMO ingredients on all of its U.S. products. With a new GMO-labeling law about to take effect in Vermont, General Mills' decision (and a similar announcement by Campbell Soup Co. last January) aren't much of a surprise.

But when it comes to the battle over GMO-labeling regulations, it seems details can often be as difficult to summarize as the fight is to wage. A House bill (HR 1599) advanced to Senate and would have lent strength to voluntary GMO reporting, but it eventually stalled and was later replaced by a Senate bill that's received a fair amount of push-back from opponents. The Senate vote that occurred last week wasn't to determine whether or not to pass the DARK Act, but an attempt by its proponents to halt contentious debate and move to a vote.

And that's where the story gets interesting.

Senate Bill 764: Marine conservation and women's reproductive rights

What was actually being voted on was a Senate bill called S. 764, a hugely popular perennial success formally called the National Sea Grant College Program Act. S. 764 was a bill to amend a 40-year-old marine sciences conservation and fisheries act that gleaned remarkable bipartisan support, year after year. But last year, Senate Republicans decided to rename this unfailing champion the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015.

Last week, that union took one more weird turn with the introduction of an amendment that would regulate laws on genetically modified organisms. By March 14 a bill that, on the surface, was designed to provide much-needed funding for education had been linked to a contentious amendment to defund a private healthcare organization along with another amendment (SA 3450) that would remove the state of Vermont's ability to enact its GMO-labeling law in July of this year.

But the March 16 vote had nothing to do with whether GMO legislation, women's reproductive rights or marine conservation funding should be passed into law. It had to do with cloture -- whether the Senate had heard enough debate on whether these three remarkably separate topics should be lumped together and speedily passed into law.

One gets the impression that there must have been an awful lot of spirited debate in Senate that week, but the end result was that, in accordance with Senate Rule 22, which requires 60 votes to invoke cloture (cap discussion) on the matter, the vote didn't pass. Debate, and objections to the effort to marry two highly unpopular amendments (Planned Parenthood and the GMO-labeling act), waged on.

But as I said, that's not the end of it.

The DARK Act and Planned Parenthood's unseemly marriage to continue

On March 16, Sen. Mitch McConnell "motioned to reconsider the vote by which cloture was not invoked on the on the motion to concur the amendment to the bill" with the contentious GMO amendment. Two Democrats, Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), withdrew their support a day after Republican senators announced they planned to embed the GMO amendment in the Sea Grant Act.

At this point, a long list of questions come to mind -- the first of which, of course, relates to this unlikely marriage and its success. Sen. Pat Roberts' (R-Kan.) proposed adding SA 3450 (the GMO-labeling standard) to the renamed Planned Parenthood Act. According to his office, adding amendments that may not appear to have anything to do with the original bill is "very common," and "the majority of bills that pass" are done this way. "It's been done throughout American history," I was told.

And yes, his office confirmed, the up-down vote last week failed to support cloture of the topic, so as the records show, discussion on the GMO-labeling standard "will continue to be discussed in Senate."

The GMO-labeling standards: Is this what consumers want?

Manufacturers who support the federal GMO-labeling bill insist that its purpose is to standardize procedures so both manufacturers and consumers will know what to expect. Doing so saves money for consumers as well as manufacturers.

"We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that," wrote General Mills' executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail, Jeff Harmening.

"With the Vermont labeling legislation upon us, and with the distinct possibility that other states will enact different labeling requirements, what we need is simple: We need a national solution."

But is this an economical solution -- bills that follow circuitous routes through Congress, don't allow consumers to follow and interpret their progress, and cost taxpayers even more money?

Last week, on the heels of the cloture vote, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) made a lengthy attempt to argue the merits of a practical, transparent GMO bill that would provide uniformity to standards and give consumers the ability to know whether GMO ingredients are in their food. In a succinct demonstration, he illustrated to senators why SA 3450, which would allow manufacturers to funnel manufacturing information through 1-800 numbers and online databases, not only won't keep consumers informed, but could also endanger children and others by delaying access to allergy risks regarding gluten, peanuts and other product exposures.

"I am standing here in the aisle. I want to compare these three products. I have to call three different 800 numbers. I ask, can anyone on this floor stand up and say this is a consumer-friendly way to answer the fundamental question as to whether there is a GE or GM -- genetically engineered or genetically modified -- ingredient? No. This is absurd," Merkley said.

Much money has been spent and will continue to be spent by food manufacturers to contest laws on the basis that states shouldn't be regulating this debate, the federal government should. For all the controversy on this issue, however, one question that General Mills and other food manufacturers have not answered is why they did not initiate voluntary labeling of GMO-containing products themselves? As General Mills has already demonstrated with its efforts to improve supply chain transparency, standardization often doesn't need government regulation. It just requires companies to take the lead before governments do.

Images: 1) Flickr/Nicholas Raymond 2) Flickr/Frankieleon

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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