© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

GMO Label Issue In Limbo As Senate Fails To Pass Bill With Voluntary System

Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

The U.S. Senate rejected a bill Wednesday that would have outlawed states from mandating labels on foods with genetically-modified ingredients, leaving the issue in limbo as a state labeling law looms.

The measure by Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, failed to get the 60 votes needed to move ahead, leaving the path open for Vermont’s mandatory labeling law to go into effect July 1. That was quickly applauded by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

"I am pleased that Congress stood up to the demands of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations and rejected this outrageous bill,” Sanders said in a statement. “Today’s vote was a victory for the American people over corporate interests.”

But Roberts called it a vote against agriculture. He urged lawmakers to help protect farmers and ranchers who supply food to a “troubled” world.

“Voting no today means telling your constituents next week that you are raising their grocery bill by over $1,000. Good luck with that,” Roberts said. “This is a pretty simple vote: you’re either with agriculture or you’re not.”

The U.S. House has already passed similar version of the bill. Last summer, a large bipartisan block voted for Rep. Mike Pompeo’s measure, which established a voluntary standard and nullifies the state laws. Pompeo is also a Kansas Republican and his bill, along with Roberts', was championed by commodity groups.

Leading those groups is the National Corn Growers Association, whose president, Chip Bowling, said Wednesday that corn farmers were disappointed the bill failed but the group would continue to work on a bipartisan agreement.

“This legislation would have provided consumers with a greater amount of information in a consistent, clear manner,” Bowling said. “Farmers are committed to creating greater transparency in the food system, but we also need Congress to set clear, commonsense guidelines that are based in science and keep food affordable for American families.”

A coalition of anti-GMO, environmental and other food advocates, which labeled Roberts’ bill the "DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act," said anything less than mandatory labeling requirements was “unacceptable.”

“Many Senators properly noted that this bill fails to solve the problem it claims to fix,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch said in a statement.

“Instead, by blocking state laws from going into effect and replacing them with voluntary measures and impractical alternatives to labeling, it would have ensured that big food processing companies and the biotechnology industry continue to profit by misleading consumers.”

Maine and Connecticut have passed mandatory labeling laws but they won’t go into effect until similar laws are passed in neighboring states.

What’s next? All sides have mentioned a compromise and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said she’d like to see a deal soon, although the Easter recess might interfere. And, thanks to a procedural move by the Senate’s Republican leadership, Roberts’ bill could come to the floor again.

A competing bill by Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, would offer some leeway in labeling GMO food products, but would make the process mandatory. Sarah Little, Roberts’ spokeswoman, said Roberts “cannot support Merkley’s bill.”

Peggy Lowe is Harvest Public Media's investigations editor. You can find her on Twitter @Peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.