Can third time be the charm in the uphill battle for GMO labeling?

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, knows his numbers. He knows that more than 90 percent of Americans believe that all foods that contain or are made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be required to have labels that state as much. Unfortunately, he also knows that it’s going to be tough to get the number of votes needed in the House of Representatives to pass a new GMO labeling bill he intends to co-sponsor along with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). But that isn’t stopping him from trying.

This isn’t the first attempt to get a GMO labeling bill through Congress. In late 2011, Polis joined then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and others in an effort to attach a GMO labeling amendment to the Farm Bill. That effort failed when the entire Farm Bill vote was blocked and the previous Farm Bill was simply extended. Then came the June 2012 effort by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that many felt had a good chance to pass. Sanders used an amendment to last year’s Farm Bill in an attempt to make GMO labeling an issue to be decided by each state. Several states at that point had indicated their desire to initiate labeling requirements for GMOs, only to back down under the threat of lawsuits by big biotech companies such as Monsanto.

Sanders believed that Republicans would support the amendment because it was a “states’ rights” issue and he felt sure that Democrats would join him because GMO labeling would create better consumer information and thereby, finally, consumer choice. But unlike Polis, Sanders didn’t know his numbers. It appears he underestimated the power of the millions upon millions of dollars that the biotech and other big ag corporations had dropped into the campaign coffers of his peers in Congress over the years. In the end, the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted against Sanders’ amendment despite the massive support for the measure among their own constituents.

Polis wants to take a different approach. The DeFazio GMO bill he intends to co-sponsor, once the exact wording can be finalized, is national in scope. It would require the labeling of all products containing GMOs throughout the United States. At least that’s the intention at this point in the process.

According to Polis, one of the problems with having GMO labeling in individual states is that it creates a substantial expense to the food companies because they have to create one package with GMO labels for one state while creating separate packaging to be used elsewhere, and that expense would most likely be passed on to consumers in the form of higher food prices, which nobody wants.

“If we require labeling nationally it won’t create additional cost,” says Polis. He also notes that his bill would open up more than 40 foreign markets for trade with countries that currently require GMO labeling.

Even though the proposed GMO labeling bill makes economic sense and has the support of nine out of 10 people in the U.S., Polis knows that getting it out of the House’s Agriculture Committee, should the bill go that route, isn’t likely.

“We understand that this bill doesn’t have much chance of getting through the committee to a full vote,” he says.

And that is hardly a surprise, considering that the ag committee reads like a who’s who of Monsanto and friends campaign finance efforts. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who chairs the committee, recently helped push through the controversial FDA decision to allow the unrestricted commercial cultivation of GMO alfalfa without restrictions that would have prevented the genetically engineered crop from contaminating nearby non-GMO alfalfa. Lucas has been the recipient of more than $1.2 million in campaign donations from big ag interests, including Monsanto and the pro-GMO Farm Bureau. In other words, Lucas and his other biotech-supported politicos on the committee will do everything in their power to make sure that any GMO labeling bill never sees the light of day.

Even so, Polis is undaunted.

“We want to get a bill to a full vote of the House,” he says, “so we will most likely need to attach it as an amendment to a relevant bill dealing with ag.”

Even though it is an uphill fight, Polis understands the value of that fight. He explains that the bill he intends to co-sponsor is about creating public awareness.

“The more public awareness, the more people will write and call their representatives and tell them to vote for GMO labeling,” says Polis. “If we can get this to a vote on the floor, then people can finally see how their representative actually voted on this issue.”

Yes, Polis knows his numbers. He understands that with overwhelming support among the public, if he can get a GMO labeling bill to a full vote of the House, it becomes very difficult for politicians to publicly go on record voting for their campaign donors’ interests instead of those of the men and women who elected them, and who have the power to send them back home in the next election cycle.

Whatever winds up happening with Polis’ GMO labeling bill, it will have been another important step in the fight for a consumer’s right to know and choose what they put into their bodies — and their children’s bodies.