GMO Labeling Addressed at Expo West

At the “Your Right to Know: Next Steps in the GMO Labeling Fight” session, Gary Hirschberg, chairman of Just Label It, led a panel discussion on the current state of GMO labeling and what it means for the industry.

One of the biggest topics was the upcoming Safe and Accurate Labeling Act legislation, which if passed, would allow food companies to voluntarily label their products for GMOs as they wish.

Hirschberg began by declaring that the GMO fight is not about safety but about increased insecticide and herbicides being used on food. The opposition to the natural products industry, as he sees it, is from biotech companies starting a “chemical treadmill.” The discussion then moved to the fact that while 60% of the world’s population has “right to know” laws about ingredients and changes to the way food is grown in the legal books, the U.S. does not. Part of what has sprung from this “federal failure,” as he describes it, is an increased level of state effort to push towards mandatory GMO labeling.

Jim Leahy, executive director of Citizens for GMO Labeling, agreed that states needed to step up in the absence of federal action, citing efforts in Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont as examples. As he explained, state effort provided “multiple targets” making it more difficult for some of the mega-companies behind GMOs to fight back. Equally as important to him is for citizens not only to get involved, but to become organized, “building infrastructure to garner influence.” He also said that activists need to work on “demystifying the lawmaking process” in order to make the movement more accessible for others.

Attorney at the Center For Food Safety Colin O’Neill offered his input from the front lines of the movement as a lobbyist in Washington D.C. Harkening back to the old adage of “the customer is always right,” he explained that some in Congress are convinced that the Safe and Accurate Labeling Act would provide a satisfactory end to the GMO labeling debate, which is not true. His focus moving forward is twofold: defeat this Act, but also use the opportunity to pivot the discussion towards mandatory labeling. This idea of pivoting would reappear multiple times throughout the discussion. Melanie Meyer from UNFI spoke next, steering towards what these development means for the private sector. Reiterating that “transparency in labeling is the way to go,” she pointed out that while herbicide usage is increasing, non-GMO product sales are as well. She expected that the GMO labeling debate would be the hottest topic in our industry this year, even if some would rather just have it be put to rest.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, May 2015