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'No Promises': Key Senators Won't Commit to Protecting States' Rights to Label GMOs

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

It took months of dogging the office gatekeepers and synchronizing schedules. But as promised, the Organic Consumers Association arranged meetings with 10 (well, eight, technically), of the 71 U.S. Senators who on May 24, 2013, voted against  the Sanders Amendment to the Farm Bill. (The Sanders Amendment, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was intended to definitively establish that states have the right to require labeling of genetically engineered ingredients in food sold in retail stores).

What we learned was this. Not one out of the 10 senators, including staunch Republicans who historically have fought for states' rights, would commit to rejecting federal legislation intended to preempt or overturn states' rights to labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products.

Not one.

On the upside, we were able to deliver our message, and let it be known that consumers-and voters-in these 10 states expect lawmakers to take GMO labeling laws seriously.

Why go to so much trouble to meet with lawmakers? After all, under the U.S. Constitution, states already have the right to enact mandatory GMO labeling laws-just as they've passed nearly 200 other state laws governing food safety and agriculture.

For starters, we wanted to know why these senators would vote against the will of the 93 percent of Americans who want GMO labeling laws.

But there was something else, even more important, that we wanted to know. With the King Amendment to the Farm Bill still in play, we wanted these senators to pledge that they would not support any federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws. (The King Amendment, introduced by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), seeks to negate most state and local laws regarding the production or manufacture of agriculture products. It is widely feared that if passed, this provision could be used to preempt state GMO labeling laws).

So we worked with state GMO labeling activists. We reached out to members who support GMO labeling laws in their states. With everyone's help, we arranged meetings with either the senators themselves, or members of their staff.

The results? Not exactly what we'd hoped. We heard a lot of mumbo jumbo about protecting interstate commerce, and about how state laws would cause "confusion." We heard rumblings about voluntary labeling as an alternative to mandatory labeling laws.

And we heard a lot of talk about the need for a federal law, not state laws. Yet despite all that talk, only two of the senators on our list have signed on to the Boxer-DeFazio bill, the only pending federal legislation to require mandatory labeling of GMOs. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), became a sponsor of the bill in April. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, after being pressured by consumers to support GMO labeling, signed on as a co-sponsor this week, November 4.

And did we mention that not one of the 10 senators would promise to reject any federal law intended to stomp out states' rights to label GMOs?

Thanks to all the activists and organizers and concerned consumers and citizens who helped us organize, and participated in these meetings!

Here's a wrap-up of what we learned.

ILLINOIS: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) - $28,000 in campaign contributions from agribusiness

On September 24, members of Illinois Right to Know GMO" along with an OCA staffer, met with the director of Sen. Durbin's Chicago office. We wanted to hear from Sen. Durbin because he's the Senate Assistant Majority Leader, and because the people of Illinois have been clear: They want labels on genetically engineered (GE) foods. We learned that Sen. Durbin:

•    Was not offering an explanation for why he voted against the Sanders Amendment
•    Would not commit to rejecting federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws
•    Would not commit to supporting a federal GMO labeling law

KENTUCKY: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) - No significant campaign contributions from agribusiness

Representatives from Kentucky's March against Monsanto organizers met in Louisville on September 20 with Sen. Paul's agricultural liaison, Whitney Meadows. Carolyn Moffa from Sen. Paul's D.C. office joined by phone. We learned that Sen. Paul:

•    Didn't support the Sander's amendment because it was "poorly written," and because he didn't see the need for a federal mandate of support for states' rights.
•    Supports states' rights to label, but would not issue a formal statement to that effect
•    Would not commit to rejecting federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws

MAINE: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) - $17,500 in 2012 campaign contributions from agribusiness

Citizen activists and members of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and met with Senator Collins on July 29, via video conference. We singled out Sen. Collins because she's a staunch advocate of states' rights, and because Maine passed a GMO labeling law in June. We learned that Sen. Collins:

•    Favors a federal GMO labeling law over state laws (but has not signed on to the Boxer-DeFazio bill)
•    Would not commit to rejecting federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws
•    Would not clearly state, one way or the other, her support or lack of support for Maine's GMO labeling law

The upshot? As one of our activists put it, we learned one thing for certain: Sen. Collins is a master at bobbing and weaving.

MASSACHUSETTS: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass)

We weren't able to arrange a meeting with Sen. Warren. However, once we learned that she, along with Sen. Mark Udall (C-Colo.), were pushing for the FDA to finalize its guidance on voluntary labeling of GMOs, we ratcheted up our efforts to reach out to her.

The OCA launched an action alert, asking Sen. Warren to rescind her letter to the FDA asking for voluntary guidance, and to support mandatory GMO labeling laws instead.

On November 4, Sen. Warren signed on as a co-sponsor to the Boxer-DeFazio bill.  We continue to hope that she will withdraw her request to the FDA to finalize its guidance on voluntary labeling, because we believe the FDA's voluntary guidance would make any GMO labeling law, state or federal, impossible. Otherwise, why would Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association be so keen to see this happen?

MICHIGAN: Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) - $740,926 in campaign contributions from agribusiness

We couldn't wait to meet with Sen. Stabenow, because not only is she chair of the Senate Ag Committee, she actually led the opposition to the Sanders amendment.  The fact that she took in more contributions from agribusiness in 2012 than any other senator is just icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, we were unable to arrange an in-person meeting with Sen. Stabenow or her staff. But here's, verbatim, what her press secretary said, in an email, when we asked why Sen. Stabenow voted against the Sanders Amendment, and whether the senator would reject federal legislation that would preempt or override states' rights to label.

"As Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I'm committed to supporting the great diversity of American agriculture, including organics - the consumer alternative to GMOs.  In fact, I wrote the first-ever specialty crops and organics title of the Farm Bill in 2008. Our 2013 Senate Farm Bill recognizes that organics, which of course cannot be genetically modified, are the fastest-growing segment of American agriculture.  My focus on organics has helped establish important assistance programs for organic producers with dedicated organic research funding, critical data collection on organic markets, and assistance for farmers transitioning into organic agriculture. The new Senate Farm Bill also improves enforcement of organic standards to ensure consumers have confidence in the organic products they purchase, and it expands the organic cost share program to help producers get certified. The new Senate Farm Bill also requires better organic price standards for crop insurance, making sure organic producers have access to strong risk management tools like traditional commodity crops do, to insure themselves against disasters and other unanticipated emergencies.

"Because the labeling of GMOs is under the jurisdiction of the FDA and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, it was not appropriate to include this issue in the Farm Bill without the consent and support of the HELP Committee leadership. I strongly support labeling when it is warranted for food safety purposes. And I believe there needs to be increased research on the safety of genetically modified crops using the principles of sound science. I will continue to monitor this issue closely."

So, there you have it. Sen. Stabenow supports labeling "when it is warranted for food safety purposes," but she doesn't conclusively state that she believes there are any safety issues with GMOs-just that there should be more "research." And she wouldn't answer the question about supporting or rejecting a federal law that would preempt states' rights.

MINNESOTA: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) - $18,800 in campaign contributions from agribusiness

On Sept. 9, about six Minnesota state GMO labeling activists and two OCA staff members met with Al Juhnke, State Ag & Energy Advisor to Sen. Al Franken, and Bethany Snyder, a field representative from Sen. Franken's office. We learned that Sen. Franken:
•    "Looks to the FDA for guidance" on food safety and labeling issues.
•    Favors a federal approach over a state-by-state "checkerboard" approach to GMO labeling (but has not signed on to the Boxer-DeFazio bill)
•    Would not commit to rejecting federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws

Mr. Juhnke and Ms. Snyder repeatedly brought up the issue of voluntary, versus mandatory, GMO labeling. That, plus the fact that Sen. Franken has not signed on to the Boxer-DeFazio bill, has us worried.

MISSISSIPPI: Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) - $71,500 in campaign contributions from agribusiness

On Sept. 10th, a total of nine people, representing the OCA, and the Jackson March Against Monsanto organizers, met with two members of Sen. Cochran's staff. The meeting was described as having gone well, with the staffers much impressed by the group's knowledge of, and passion for, the issue. We didn't get answers to our specific questions about why Sen. Cochran voted no on the Sanders Amendment, or whether or not he would support federal legislation that could preempt or overturn states' rights to label GMOs. But the story didn't end there. One of the co-organizers of the meeting, Lindsey Lemmons, traveled to Washington D.C. on September 12, to meet with staffers in Sen. Cochran's D.C. office. And last we knew, Ms. Lemmons was setting up an in-person meeting with the senator during his Thanksgiving break. Bottom line? No real answers yet. But we're certain that activists in Mississippi will hold Sen. Cochran's feet to the fire on the GMO labeling issue.

NEW JERSEY: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) - $159,050 in 2012 campaign contributions from agribusiness

Members of GMO Free NJ, and other groups met with Frank Schultz, Project Specialist for Sen. Menendez, on August 14. They learned that Sen. Mendez:

•    Favors federal over state GMO labeling laws because if GMO laws are differ from state to state, it's too difficult for producers and confusing for consumers (though he has not signed on to the Boxer-DeFazio bill)
•    Would not commit to supporting a New Jersey State labeling law
•    Would not commit to rejecting federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws
•    Voted in favor of an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that would have required an additional review into the health and safety of genetically modified salmon before it can be sold to consumers.

NEW YORK: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) - $198,883 in 2012 campaign contributions from agribusiness

Members of GMO Free NY, Food & Water Watch and Hunger Action Network NYC, and Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the Consumers Union, along with others, met with Sen. Gillibrand's staff on July 29. They learned that Sen. Gillibrand:

•    Supports a federal GMO labeling law
•    Would not commit to supporting a New York state GMO labeling law
•    Would not commit to rejecting federal legislation that would preempt or override state GMO labeling laws

In an email from Sen. Gillibrand's office, to one of our members asking for clarification on her stance on GMO labeling laws, Sen. Gillibrand responded with this:

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can play an important role in combating world hunger, increasing agricultural productivity, and improving the nutritional content of certain foods.  I do, however, share your concerns about the potential risks of environmental contamination and long-term impacts these illegal GMOs may have on human health.

Currently, there are many opinions regarding the safety risks associated with GMOs, but very little scientific evidence to help consumers make informed decisions.  We need to develop better diagnostic methods for evaluating the safety of consuming GMOs, as well as improved oversight and management of agricultural practices that might contribute to genetically modified seeds cross-contaminating conventional production systems.

  WISCONSIN: Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)

Activists from Right to know Wisconsin and met with one of Sen. Baldwin's staff members on August 30. We learned that Sen. Baldwin:

•    Didn't vote for the Sanders Amendment because she considered it to be "redundant"
•    Recommended those attending the meeting contact their state representatives if they were interested in proposing a state labeling law or ballot initiative
•    Could not provide any assurance on rejecting federal legislation that could preempt state labeling laws

Katherine Paul is Associate Director of the Organic Consumers Association.


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