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The GMO labeling fight and Brexit

Greetings from Edinburgh, Scotland!

It so happens that my trip to Great Britain coincided with a historic referendum that has thrown the future of this nation (or should I say, these nations) into a haze of uncertainty. Welcome to the age of Brexit, and a political tableau that appears to be a mirror image of this unpredictable electoral season back home in the good old USA.

The organic community has also recently become caught up in another political wrangle. The blogosphere and twitterverse have been humming with tension along with celebration: July 1 marks another historic event, as my home state of Vermont's first in the nation GMO labeling law goes into effect. Meanwhile, another eleventh hour piece of legislation is being pushed forward in the US Senate that would preempt Vermont's law. This bi-partisan bill includes some provisions negotiated by the Organic Trade Association, tradeoffs that OTA believes make it worth supporting despite it being a "less than perfect" compromise that "we can live with." Many others, including those dedicated anti-GMO activists celebrating in Vermont, are not so accepting.

Vermont celebrates labeling law

I confess to not having read the bill, but have given careful consideration to the rationale offered by OTA for its acceptance, including endorsements by people I respect. On the other hand, some activist groups have trotted out their hyped up attack verbiage, accusing OTA, and anyone else presumably involved with supporting this compromise bill, of treason, collusion with the forces of evil, and similar crimes. This has only inclined me towards greater sympathy for OTA's position, given my experience with some of the same loudmouths chronicled in Organic Revolutionary. And I do appreciate the sincere effort that OTA has put in to protect organic as the "original non-GMO".

However, after reading a couple of very intelligent and rational critiques, including the New Food Economy and Huffington Post commentaries, as well as a technical analysis by none other than FDA, I have to conclude that the Roberts-Stabenow bill is fatally flawed. I'm proud that our Vermont Senators Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy are leading the charge to stop it, along with all the rest of our elected officials. In my opinion it would have been better to let them attempt to put something out there that none of us could live with and present a unified front in opposition, with a more justified stance of self-righteous anger.

My big question is, why the rush to put out a bill now? The threat of multiple state laws creating a conflicting patchwork is hardly imminent, and while the Vermont law is not perfect either, at least it is clear and reasonable. Several of the biggest food industry players have already made their labels compliant without precipitating the end of the world. Wouldn't it be better to slow down and engage the anti-GMO community in the discussion? It is true that some of them will likely oppose any form of compromise, especially with leadership from the big bad corporate organic industry. I have also called out my activist friends for their rhetoric of treason and warfare -- we have to be in this together. The real opposition to the values and vision we all share (despite some real differences in ideology) is only too happy to help drive a wedge deeper between us. This is a scenario with which I am sadly too familiar.

A key story that I tell in Organic Revolutionary is how Monsanto was able to avoid the push for labelling after they first introduced commercial GMO crops. Jeremy Rifkin's Pure Food Campaign (which later became the Organic Consumers Association) was generating public concern about this novel technology, and demanding that products of genetic engineering at least be labeled. When Monsanto's effort to force GMOs on organics via the Office of Management & Budget backfired they realized that they had the perfect solution: Let the organic rules prohibit GMO's, and support making organic standards as pure and strict as possible. Voila! organic thus became the option for those who don't want GMOs, so no need to label them. By encouraging the demand that organic be considered the "gold standard" they understood that it could be limited to a 5% market niche while they had free reign with the rest of agriculture.

A recent example of how this approach works against organic expansion is a California court decision that prohibits use by organic farmers of compost that contains any prohibited synthetics, even as unintended contaminants. This was instigated by some of the same groups declaring verbal war on OTA over its willingness to compromise.

So here we are, almost 20 years after this story unfolded, with organic sales teetering on the brink of 5% of the food system, and US farmland under organic management still amounting to less than 1%. It does finally seem inevitable that products of genetic engineering will end up being labeled in some manner, and we may be approaching a tipping point that could topple the domination of our food supply by the likes of Monsanto. But the Roberts-Stabenow bill is no help in that effort, and from where I sit only serves to further divide the organic community and confuse the hell out of everyone else.

In this age of Bernie, Donald & Brexit there is no telling what will emerge from the political sausage factory.


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