Genetically Modified Seeds
Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds. Photo: Dan Gill/AP/NPR

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has introduced new legislation that would prohibit states from creating their own labeling laws for foods that contain genetically modified or engineered ingredients.

Genetically modified or engineered seeds are engineered to have certain traits, such as resistance to herbicides. The majority of the United States’ corn and soybean crops are now GE, including a large portion that is used for animal feed.

The Hill reported that a draft of Roberts’ bill requires the Secretary of Agriculture to create a “national voluntary labeling standard” for GE foods. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee will review the bill on Thursday.

“I will continue to work with members of the Agriculture Committee on potential amendments. However, we are out of time,” Roberts said, according to The Hill.  “The time to act is now. Negotiations will continue in an effort to reach committee agreement.”

Roberts’ bill is similar to the controversial Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which passed the House in June 2015. That bill was also known as the “DARK” (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act by critics because the law would have effectively nullified GE labeling measures, such as the bill recently passed in Vermont. The Vermont law is scheduled to take effect July 2016. Maine and Connecticut have also passed laws requiring labeling, but those measures will not go into effect until bordering states also pass legislation.

Similar to the new bill, the “DARK Act” would have created a federal voluntary standard for GE labeling and block mandatory labeling efforts by states. The bill received support from a coalition of groups representing growers and the food industry who said it wouldprevent a costly and confusing patchwork of state labeling laws from taking effect next year and spreading across the country.”

Lisa Archer, the program director for Friends of the Earth Food and Technology, claimed in a statement provided to The Hill that the new bill “is a desperate attempt by the junk food and chemical industries to keep Americans in the dark about what we feed our families.”

“93 percent of Americans want GMO labeling and this effort to try and stop the consumer demand for transparency that has shaken Big Food to its core will ultimately fail,” said Archer.

Individuals on other side of the debate expressed approval for the new legislation.

“We are very pleased that Chairman Roberts has scheduled a markup on legislation that meets an urgent need to avoid the inevitable chaos the food industry faces if left without a federal government-created standard definition that eliminates multiple state approaches,” Jennifer Hatcher, a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, said according to a statement given to The Hill. “Without immediate action, costs in the supply chain will escalate rapidly and once the resources are expended, consumer costs will inevitably rise.”

Health advocates and anti-GE, pro-labeling activists are preparing for another battle centered around the controversial technology. If the new bill passes, states would lose the ability to decide whether they would like to mandate labels or make the labeling voluntary. By creating a one-size fits all, centralized solution, the federal government will take away states’ and localities’ ability to make decisions which are in line with the needs of the local environment and community.

In 2015, the critics of the “DARK Act” were able to force the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition & Forestry to hold a hearing titled Agriculture Biotechnology: A Look at Federal Regulation and Stakeholder Perspectives.

The committee heard testimony from several speakers representing farmers, the GMO lobby, and consumer groups. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency also testified. However, the hearing was criticized for being one-sided and favoring corporations who would directly benefit from the passage of the bill.

As Reuters reported, “the Consumers Union and five other consumer organizations sent a letter to the Senate committee complaining that the lineup of speakers was not balanced and did not include a consumer representative.”

Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, said “Time and again, a large majority of consumers have expressed strong support for GMO labeling.”