Last week President Obama signed the DARK (Deny Americans their Right to Know) Act into law that pre-empts Vermont’s and all other state’s mandatory GMO labeling laws. This bill, passed by Congress two weeks ago, was championed by Senators Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts (Ranking Member and Chairman of the Senate Ag committee) along with USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. It creates a federal “non-labeling” standard for foods produced in part or entirely with genetic engineering. The legislation is a gift to the pesticide and food industries who make and sell GMOs. It allows companies to use QR codes or 1-800 numbers instead of clear on pack labeling to disclose the presence of GMOs, forcing consumers to scan the code or make a call, effectively burying and hiding the information.
Millions of American consumers have been fighting for what 64 countries around the world already require: a clear on pack statement indicating presence of GMO ingredients. Vermont’s law was the first in the nation and took effect July 1st, with more states soon to follow with the same requirements. Major food brands had already clearly labeled their products nationwide in response without raising prices, disclosing whether products were produced in part or entirely with genetic engineering. Over 90% of GMO crop acreage is engineered to be saturated and survive huge doses of toxic weed killers, including Glyphosate, which has been deemed a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Consumers and physicians are rightly concerned about increasing residues of this and other herbicides on GMO foods as well as their impact on the environment.
This DARK Act was made possible in large part by what I and other movement leaders see clearly as the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA’s) betrayal of the movement to mandate labeling of GMOs in America, forever preempting Vermont and all other states from mandating disclosure of GMOs on packaging. Apparently Executive Director of the OTA, Laura Batcha, and board chair Missy Hughes, General Counsel of Organic Valley, with support from Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, decided to act unilaterally and endorse the Stabenow Roberts legislation, without review and approval of the OTA board. The explanation given is pathetic and self-serving: that organic products can claim to be produced without genetic engineering, which was already the case; and that dairy and meat products from animals fed GMO grain cannot automatically make a GMO free claim. The latter is a trivial issue compared to pre-empting citizens’ right to mandate disclosure of the presence of GMOs, and should be addressed through separate litigation and legislation.
More importantly, OTA’s leadership demonstrated a complete lack of integrity and courage in standing against the biotech agenda championed by Vilsack, Roberts and Stabenow. As a movement we already went through this exact scenario in February, when Vilsack and Stabenow were leaning hard on multiple movement representatives to take this deal, myself included, and then focused on pressuring Just Label It (JLI) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to split the movement and provide enough political cover to wavering Democrats to get 60 votes to cloture. At that time movement leaders counseled JLI and EWG that the broader movement did not support making a deal that would allow the QR code plan to move forward. I stressed that it was time for the movement to come together and fight:
I and others appreciate that you believe we will lose a floor vote and thus we should cut a deal along lines that Vilsack and Stabenow are pressuring on: industry gets two years to prove that people know their QR code or whatever tells them if a product is GMO or not. The rest of the movement’s intel is that it will be very difficult for the opposition to get enough Dems, and we want to fight this out. If we concede and give them cover to preempt VT, then there are any number of ways they can keep kicking the can down the road. Vilsack and Stabenow believe in the stupid patchwork BS and want to see VT preempted, and are leaning hard on you and JLI to help make it happen.
It’s time to come together and fight. You guys are crucial leaders and allies but part of a much larger movement… if JLI and EWG go rogue it’s going to suck on every level for you and all of us. You made your case to movement leaders, we debated and considered and none of us is down with the course you want to go. So bam let’s throw down and take it to em, let’s target the farm state wavering Dems and bring the fight like we’ve been bringing it all along.
And indeed the broader movement brought it hard, united, in March, and knocked the opposition on their butts. Farm state Dems for the most part went our way. The reason we won in March, as much as the voluntary nature of the legislation, was that the QR code disclosure itself was such a discriminatory way to bury product information and preempt states rights.
Once we won that decisive victory, the new baseline “worst case” result for our movement was “mandatory” disclosure via QR codes, and given the huge momentum we were riding, our movement correctly believed we had more than a fighting chance of defeating a compromise mandatory QR disclosure that Stabenow would fashion with Roberts. Getting 60 votes to cloture would be a very difficult lift when the BS nature of QR disclosure itself was so central in defeating Roberts’ voluntary version.
Knowing this, unbeknownst to anyone except probably JLI and EWG, Stabenow and Vilsack evidently leaned on OTA to be the movement traitor, giving trivial concessions to organic interests in return for OTA to not only endorse but actively lobby and campaign on behalf of their bill to pre-empt Vermont and other states with federal QR BS. OTA played their Judas role to a T, providing the necessary political cover to wavering senators, and their press release endorsing pre-emption of on pack labeling of GMOs is masterful in disguising the knife into the back of the movement. Their subsequent efforts to put lipstick on this travesty of a bill were extraordinary, working hard with Stabenow and USDA to counter FDA’s exposure of how fatally flawed this legislation is. OTA and Organic Valley attempted to spin their support was not crucial to passage, to which Jim Leahy, lead lobbyist for Citizens for GMO Labeling stated:
As a 30+ year lobbyist, I am comfortable with my understanding of how Congress works. OTA's support was clearly critical to the proponents of this bill. US Senators are not in the habit of providing incentives to get organizations on board with a bill if that support is not necessary. The argument that OTA jumped on a bill that was passing anyway is either naive or disingenuous. The sponsors knew that if they could split our side, they would provide cover for farm state Dems who wanted to vote yes, but were being held captive by strong consumer opposition. OTA provided the cover necessary for them to bolt. You were the tipping point.
Since the legislation OTA endorsed was the same that Gary Hirshberg, JLI and Stonyfield Chairman, was advocating the movement take over the winter, many believed that JLI was party to this and giving tacit blessing behind the scenes with relevant Senators and staff. I hoped this was not the case and that Gary, along with JLI and EWG were with us, as only JLI was in a position to stop OTA’s betrayal. JLI and OTA overlap substantially and Stonyfield is Organic Valley's largest customer. If Gary and JLI chose, they could have pressured them to publicly walk back their endorsement of the Stabenow Roberts bill. That didn’t happen and actions speak louder than words. Recent JLI and EWG statements are pretty revealing. It’s now clear JLI played a Pontius role washing their hands not doing anything to stop OTA’s betrayal.
No one got anything good here except the pesticide and junk food industries. The red line for our movement is on-pack disclosure that clearly indicates whether a food is genetically engineered. The requirement of QR codes as a stand in for labeling is a joke and lauding this “compromise” for trivial concessions to organic industry interests is ridiculous. What if instead of the USDA organic seal we could only use a QR code? It’s not for OTA, Organic Valley or any other organization to trade away Americans right to know what’s in the food we eat.
OTA’s board chair and executive director claim they are authorized by OTA’s membership to make unilateral decisions of this magnitude without board review, because they are informed by task force recommendations representing membership expertise and perspective. This is false: the red line that came out of the OTA task forces on GMO labeling, is that clear on package disclosure of GMOs is a sovereign right of all Americans. Batcha and Hughes chose to go rogue preempting this right, and there is no excuse for it. The leading organic food brand, Nature’s Path, has already resigned its board position and my company, Dr. Bronner’s will resign from OTA itself if we don’t see actions taken by September to remedy the leadership problems at OTA. I’m not sure how deep and broad the corruption and disorder is at OTA, but I half expect the leadership of OTA and JLI to receive awards for this fiasco.
Separately, leaving alone the merits or lack thereof of the organic check off program that limits marketing claims to those that don’t “disparage” the disaster of industrial agriculture, OTA’s leadership is now advocating that OTA and its membership should also not “go negative” on industrial agriculture. I just ordered OTA’s own consumer survey data, and I’m pretty sure that it’s going to show what we all know: the number one driver of organic food, especially organic produce, is consumer concerns about toxic pesticide residues in their food. We should further be communicating that the industrial ag machine is ripping fertility out of our soil, poisoning our water and bodies, killing huge amounts of non-target wildlife while creating massive dead zones in the ocean, and driving us off the climate change cliff.
We need to transition agriculture globally to sustainable organic practices that builds soil health, sequesters carbon and provides healthy food for our children and children's children, and provides bio diverse habitat for wildlife on a planet not facing catastrophic climate change. We also need to get animals out of their cages and back on the land in mixed organic farming systems, and reduce consumption of animal products.
Apparently OTA’s leadership has lost perspective and doesn’t have the strength to maintain core organic values while dancing so close to the devil in Washington. Organic industry interests will be best served by leadership that is organizationally feared, not personally liked in DC.
All is not lost of course: a powerful coalition of organizations have coalesced to form a powerful food movement in the US, unleashing market and cultural drivers here and abroad for more transparency and away from ingredients engineered to be saturated in toxic herbicide. We exposed industry collusion with academics that whipsaw US regulatory agencies and process regarding both GMOs and pesticides. We have built a politically potent food movement that is battle tested and ready for the next fight, knowing now who our real friends and allies are.
David Bronner is cosmic engagement officer for Dr. Bronner’s.