The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would preempt states from enacting labeling laws for genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Another provision of the bill would require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of any GMO before it can be sold, which is similar to how the government handles prescription drugs.
The bipartisan bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, passed the House by a vote of 275–150. If it becomes law, it will cancel existing laws requiring foods developed using genetic modification or containing genetically modified crops in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont and prevent other states from requiring such labels.
GMOs Common, Not Unique
Jay Lehr, science director of The Heartland Institute, says genetically modified crops are common, and he says there has never been any evidence indicating GMOs are harmful.
“We have been genetically modifying and improving food now for 30 years, and there is not a single proven case of even one human being made sick by it—not one—and we are now growing genetically modified crops on more than 120 million hectares around the world in 28 countries.”
“Ninety-five percent of the soybeans and 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered,” said Greg Conko, executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “If you buy bread, a packaged meal, or nearly anything packaged, it will have some component of soy or corn, either flour, oil, or some other product from those crops.
“Scientists have historically taken the position GMO crops are not fundamentally any different from selectively bred ones, a practice that has gone on for millennia,” Conko said. “Safeguards are already in place to check the nutritional content, taste, and even texture of any new crops [created] for human consumption, as the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency already regulate GMOs.”
According to medical doctor and lawyer John Dale Dunn, GMO crops are not nutritionally or substantively different from crops developed through traditional crossbreeding.
“In fact, it is the normal and regular process of improving plant strains by modifying their characteristics,” said Dunn. “It is not Frankenstein food; it is nothing more than an improvement on hybridization, which has been a practice [used] for centuries to improve plant production.”
Threats of Boycotts
Despite there being no evidence of harm from the use of genetically modified crops, some states have responded to pressure from environmental lobbyists to force companies to label products carrying GMOs. The groups hope to use the labels to lead boycotts against companies using GMOs as they have in Europe.
Companies have expressed concerns about the costs of compliance with labeling laws that vary from state to state.
Conko says the food industry pushed for federal preemption because “the many states considering mandatory labeling laws scares the packaged food industry.”
In Europe, where it is common for GMO products to be labeled, “‘green’ groups have mounted PR campaigns against the manufacturers,” said Conko. “The packaged food industry does not operate on large profit margins, and their concern is if ‘green’ groups boycott Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, for example, and they lose 5 percent of their sales, it could eliminate all profits on the product.”
New Regulator Raises Concerns
Since the bill would also require all GMOs to receive approval by FDA before being marketed, it is a mixed bag for the industry and free-market advocates who have long fought state labeling laws.
Some fear requiring FDA pre-approval for GMOs could create worse problems than labeling for biotech crop developers and food processors. Conko points to the case of genetically altered salmon as an example, where the FDA was given authority to regulate its development and use under the agency’s authority to regulate drugs developed for animals.
“The agency has a statutory deadline to make a decision in 180 days,” Conko said. “However, in the case of the salmon, the process has dragged on for 20 years. There is effectively no route to ensure timely decisions.
“We should be moving in the other direction,” Conko said. “Instead of adding this pre-approval by FDA, we should be getting rid of the mandatory rules that USDA and EPA have.”
Other experts interviewed agreed with Conko’s assertion the provision requiring FDA approval for GMOs is unnecessary and could hinder the process of developing safe, plentiful foods and medicines, potentially adding years or decades to development.
Henry I. Miller, the a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said, “As it is, FDA is taking years to do reviews that should take weeks—and in this case are completely unnecessary. How do I know? I was the medical reviewer for the first bioengineered drugs in the 1980s. We approved the first two, which were human insulins, in five months.”
“This is a horrible thing that will be heavily abused by FDA sooner rather than later,” said Lehr.
“Do you realize what could be done by a malicious and mendacious FDA to interfere with the introduction of a new strain of corn, soybeans, rice, or beans?” asked Dunn. “The FDA could kill [genetically modified foods], and it would.”
Mark Ramsey ([email protected]) writes from Houston, Texas.