Genetically modified foods are an oft-discussed topic among consumers, health experts, food companies, and now legislators, who are proposing GMO bills in droves. Legislation runs the gamut, though most bills tend to deal with either GMO labeling or GMO crop cultivation. Here are three pieces of GMO legislation that are making big headlines:
Jackson County, Oregon – GMO cultivation
Last week, a federal judge in Oregon upheld a Jackson County GMO ban after two alfalfa farmers filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban. With this ban in place, the farmers would have to destroy about 300 acres of herbicide-resistant, GMO crops, which the farmers said was unconstitutional and caused them "undue financial hardship," according to The Oregonian. The farmers claimed that under the "right to farm" statute, their crops should be left alone. The judge, however, ruled that the statute is meant to protect crops that might be considered a nuisance but does not protect crops that can harm other commercial farmers — in this case, organic farmers.
The dilemma surrounding this ban can eventually trickle down to the food companies those farms supply. Without the ban in place, organic farmers could be at risk of their crops being contaminated when wind blows GMO crops onto their fields. Organic farmers are still in a clear minority in the U.S., so companies that depend on what limited organic farms are available could be harmed as well if organic farms' crops are contaminated and cannot be certified and sold as organic ingredients. A diminshed supply of organic ingredients could drive up ingredients prices for food companies. It could also eventually mean a diminished supply of organic products that companies can manufacture, which could drive up prices for consumers as well.
Vermont – Mandatory GMO labeling
In 2014, Vermont became the first state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling law, Act 120, which will take effect July 1, 2016. Per the law, any fresh or processed foods that are entirely or partially produced by engineering must be labeled as such.
While this was a landmark case for GMO labeling proponents, the law has not gone over well with all parties involved. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, other industry groups, and some food and beverage companies sought a preliminary injunction against the labeling law. However, that request was denied earlier this year, so the law will go into effect as planned, barring any similar actions on behalf of the food industry. However, in that same decision, the court did say that the definition for the word "natural" was unclear, so the law could not prohibit companies to use "natural" and similar terms on their labels, as was laid out in the original bill.
The GMA, however, has not stopped with that denial of an injunction. The association has appealed the court’s decision.
The issue at hand is whether the law would cause irreparable harm to these food and beverage companies. The GMA calls the labeling requirements unconstitutional and says that they impose "burdensome new speech requirements," Food Business News reported. Also, the GMA fears that this could be the first of 50 patchwork examples of labeling legislation which could be both costly and confusing for everyone on both sides of the food purchase transaction. According to the judge presiding over the injunction request, however, the association was only able to identify the possibility of harm, which would not be enough proof needed for a formal injunction.
To the benefit of the GMA's case, the FDA announced in December that it found GMO foods to be safe.
National – Voluntary GMO labeling
Currently being debated in the House, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act would preempt state GMO labeling laws and instead institute a blanket policy that would make GMO labeling voluntary for food companies instead of mandatory. Many food companies are satisfied with this type of law much more than mandatory labeling, but this proposal has incensed GMO opponents, who call it the Denying Americans the Right to Know, or DARK, Act.
To anti-GMO groups, organic and non-GMO food producers, and some consumers, this type of law makes little sense. To them, it misses the point of labeling legislation, which is to increase food companies’ transparency about the ingredients they use in their products. GMO opponents feel they’ve been making headway in regions like New England, particularly Vermont, and Oregon, as well as other pockets of the U.S. where dozens of GMO-related bills are currently in session. Having the DARK bill pass could not only prevent similar successes in the future, but they could lose what ground they’ve gained so far.
Many GMO bills being discussed in U.S. states could have a pronounced impact on the food industry this year and leading into the next decade. As more consumers are turning away from GMO products and demanding that they at least be labeled as such, it’s likely that these state bill proposals will only grow in number, though it's unclear what these bills will ultimately look like and what their impact could mean either way.