Politicians and activist groups in over 20 U.S. states are working to pass ballot initiatives that would legally require the labelling of all foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO). A successful state initiative could potentially spur action on a federal level to create a national programme for GMO labelling in the US.

“The only way to get the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to act is to have something passed on a state level,” says Andrew Kimbrell, a public interest attorney and Executive Director of Center for Food Safety in Washington DC “Once one state labels, or there is another close election, the FDA will feel the pressure.”

California almost passed a law to require labelling of GMO foods this past November; the bill was defeated by a narrow public vote of 53.1 to 46.9 percent. The defeat of Proposition 37 garnered a collective sigh from both sides – of disappointment from supporters and of relief from opponents, but before anyone could catch another breath, GMO labeling bills had gained momentum in states across the country: Washington, Vermont, Connecticut, Colorado… An estimated 37 states are engaged in grassroots efforts. Twenty of those have written bills. California proved to be the first domino in a long line of states to take legislative action on GMO labelling.

“Without a doubt, Prop 37 elevated the issue and inspired other efforts, as well as new receptivity on the part of some companies,” says Michael Pollan, American author and food activist.

Each state’s bill differs slightly in origins and terms. All states face tight legislative deadlines as well as lobbyists who want to slow down or kill the bill. A House vote must take place before the legislative term ends (April, May or June, depending on the state), or the bill dies until sessions resume in January 2014. A bill can be proposed more than once, which is good news for its sponsors since several bills have already been rejected on the House floor.

Some state representatives, like those who voted against a labelling bill in Colorado last week, feel that farmers and consumers would end up paying more for their food if a state GMO labelling law was passed.

Others politicians, like in Vermont, cited fears that their state would be sued by biotechnology companies if a labelling bill was enacted. Kimbrell counters that as long as the proposed state law addresses a matter of public interest and concern – such as protecting organic farmers’ crops from being contaminated by drift from GMO crop fields – there is no question that any state or local law would be susceptible to a successful legal challenge like the one feared. Almost eight years ago, Alaska enacted legislation that requires the labelling of all products containing GMO fish and shell fish, the first labelling legislation in the US, and has received no legal challenges.

Many State Representatives feel that Congress should ultimately be responsible for setting a national standard for GMO labelling – a point of consonance.

“State by state labelling only make sense in the short term,” says Pollan.

“The FDA has dropped the ball on this,” says Dave Rogers, Policy Adviser for Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont, whose state’s GMO labelling bill is currently undergoing hearings in the Vermont House to a reported one-third of its members’ support. “States are acting as the laboratories of democracy.”

The FDA has not reviewed its 1992 policy that deems GMO crops to be “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO crops, and thus needing no label or safety tests, since it was written. The policy was spearheaded by Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer, when he was in the role of deputy commissioner of policy. In 2010, Taylor was named deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA.

“There has been a direct hit on our freedom of choice and the very principles this country was founded on,” says Tara Cook-Littman, a former New York prosecutor and leader of GMO Free CT. “Eventually our voices will be so loud that our government will not be able to ignore us any longer.”

Indeed, it seems that efforts from organisations like the one Cook-Littman leads are having an impact at the federal level. In mid-January, it was reported that representatives from major food companies and retailers, as well as GMO labeling activists, met with the FDA to discuss lobbying for a national labelling program.

“My sense is that food makers are having second thoughts about fighting labels,” says Pollan, referring to their contribution to the $46 million invested in a campaign to defeat Prop 37. Continuing to sell GMO foods without labels would “put them at odds with their consumers, which is never a good place to be. Why should they carry Monsanto’s water?”

Negotiations on a federal level are not without its risks to state and grassroots movements. GMO labelling supporters fear that further talks will be behind closed doors and negotiated by the biotechnology industry.

If and when a Federal GMO labelling law is enacted, “there are deep concerns that it would simply be a compromise that the industry could live with, but that would not give consumers the rights and protections we are looking for,” says Cook-Littman. “Passing a law with no teeth on the federal level would then preempt states from passing laws with stronger language that would give consumers the transparency that the citizens of 62 countries already enjoy.”

Cook-Littman says that she believes state-mandated GMO labelling laws is one solution to avoid a weak federal law. She adds that grassroots leaders from 37 states are currently working together to introduce unified language in GMO labelling bills throughout the country.

Another solution would be – against all odds – a compromise between the biotechnology industry, food companies, farmers and other stakeholders the state bills propose to protect.

During his campaign in 2007, President Barack Obama said he would strive to “let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they’re buying.”

70% of processed foods in America contain GMOs. According to a survey conducted by Just Label It, 90% of Americans support GMO labelling. Over a year ago, the group, along with The Center for Food Safety, filed a legal petition containing over 1.2 million signatures from consumers, farm groups and food companies to the FDA; there has been no response from the federal administration.

With continued state-wide political and grassroots efforts, GMO labelling programmes – at state or national levels – are inevitable.

Kimbrell says: “It’s just a matter of time, but everyone would save a lot of effort if we all came to the table now.”

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