An attempt to pass a new law preempting efforts in several states to mandate GMO labeling is not only doomed to failure, it’s exactly the wrong strategy industry needs to prevail.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted 275-150 in favor of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would block states from passing mandatory GMO labeling laws. The bill would also establish rules for marketing foods under a national non-GMO certification program.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) is expected to introduce a companion bill in the Senate after senators return from their August recess. The bill would face hearings before the Senate Agriculture Committee, and it will be much more difficult to garner the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to defeat a potential filibuster.

Nevertheless, there is growing momentum for a federal response to the groundswell of state efforts to impose mandatory GMO labeling.

But this proposed law won’t deal with the fundamental issue here, and that isn’t consumer demand for labeling, but rather a deep distrust of genetic engineering as a science and its application as a complex technology. All that H.R. 1599 would do is further polarize the controversy, further obscure the confusion and further alienate consumers suspicious of the entire rationale underlying genetic modification.

No doubt, there are credible, scientifically sound arguments in favor of deploying biotechnology in agriculture. The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, a group of food-industry trade groups, has done a solid job of detailing those benefits, noting that GE crops allows farmers to employ no-till practices that greatly reduce erosion and irrigation runoff, not to mention that the use of pre-emergent herbicides reduces overall application of such chemicals in controlling weeds.

What the coalition hasn’t been so successful in selling is the claim that biotech will reduce food costs and help alleviate world hunger. Those benefits may indeed be realized someday, but as of now, whatever favorable economics are associated with the cultivation of GE crops are going to growers and processors, not consumers.

Claiming cost savings isn’t deliberately misleading, but it’s a proposition that has zero traction with typical shoppers in the supermarket, who see their weekly grocery bills going in one direction only: upward.

And as for feeding the world, that’s a wonderful sentiment and a mandate likely to become a serious priority a lot sooner than we might suspect. But all reputable studies to date have not demonstrated that GE crop varieties generate any significant increase in yields, nor any significant improvement in overall food productivity.

Now, there is low-hanging fruit to be captured in terms of ramping up global food production without sacrificing more forest land or pouring more non-renewable resources into agriculture, but it has to do with implementation of agricultural basics — modern irrigation systems, hybrid seeds and efficient harvesting, storage and distribution systems — as opposed to cultivating genetically engineered crops.

A softball pitch

Even worse, given the controversial nature of the debate over biotechnology, the rationale used by House Republicans to support the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is totally wrongheaded.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), the sponsor of HR 1599, argued that the legislation was needed to prevent a “patchwork of state labeling laws” that would drive up consumer costs.

C’mon, really? This from the party that rarely misses a chance to bear hug the concept of states’ rights? It’s about the worst possible argument to support federal preemption, and provides anti-GMO activists with the PR equivalent of a hanging curve over the heart of the plate they can hammer out of the park.

Not to mention that on so many other issues, there is broad bipartisan acceptance of a “patchwork” of varying state regulations that nobody in Washington is rushing forward to preempt. From regulation of health insurance companies to driver’s licensing rules to control of liquor sales to management of worker’s compensation programs, there is a crazy quilt of different regulations across all 50

 

 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator