An anti-GMO rally in Seattle. (Flickr/Alexis Baden-Mayer)
Simple concept: people who consume food should have information about what’s in their food.
And if foods contain genetically modified organisms, consumers surely have a right to know.
Who could disagree? Most senators, that’s who.
While sixty-four countries around the world require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients, while the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association have passed resolutions supporting this sort of labeling in the United States, the Senate voted 71-27 to keep Americans in the dark.
US Senator Bernie Sanders proposed an amendment to the federal farm bill that would have allowed states to require clear labels on any food or beverage containing ingredients that have been genetically modified. Sanders said, “I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child.”
Fearing lawsuits from multinational biotechnology, agribusiness and food production firms—which also maintain some of the most efficient lobbying teams in Washington—even states with long histories of consumer protection and right-to-know legislation have been cautious about introducing this sort of food labeling. The Sanders amendment addressed that threat, establishing a clear federal policy that states are allowed to require clear labels so that consumers know what they’re eating.
“Monsanto and other major corporations should not get to decide this, the people and their elected representatives should,” said the independent senator from Vermont, where the state assembly recently voted 99-42 to call for labeling.
When the Senate vote came on Thursday, however, only twenty-four Democrats, two independents (Sanders and Maine’s Angus King) and one Republican (Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski) backed the labeling amendment. As Food & Water Watch’s Patty Lovera noted, many of the “yes” votes came from senators who “represent states with active grassroots campaigns to pass state laws on GE labeling, including both senators from Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, as well as Senator Bennett from Colorado, Senator Tester from Montana, Senator Reid from Nevada, Senator Heinrich from New Mexico and Senator Schumer from New York.”
Of the 71 “no” votes, twenty-eight came from Democrats—many of whom fancy themselves consumer advocates and backers of the public’s right to know. The other forty-three “no” votes came Republicans, almost all of who say they want to free up the states to experiment and innovate.
Unfortunately, some of the loudest lobbyist voices in Washington say different.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.