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California lawmakers reject GMO labeling bill

Published time: May 29, 2014 22:00
Edited time: May 31, 2014 17:48
A label on a bag of popcorn indicates it is a non-GMO food product, in Los Angeles, California (AFP Photo / Robyn Beck)

A label on a bag of popcorn indicates it is a non-GMO food product, in Los Angeles, California (AFP Photo / Robyn Beck)

The California Senate rejected on Wednesday a bill that would require labels on genetically-engineered foods. This is the second time in two years that labeling legislation has fallen short in the most populous and agriculturally-productive state.

Senate Bill 1381 fell short of passage by just two votes in the 40-member chamber. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Noreen Evans, said she would attempt to convince Senate leaders to bring a reconsideration vote on Thursday, according to the Sacramento Bee, before the legislative session ends on Friday.

The measure would demand all distributors who sell food in the state to label their products if any of the ingredients were made with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). The bill excludes alcohol and food sold at farmers markets.

"This bill is a straightforward, common-sense approach to empowering consumers," said Evans. "If the product contains GMOs, label it. We shouldn't be hiding ingredients."

The labeling bill was supported by organic food producers and environmental organizations. It is opposed by powerful agribusiness and biotechnology companies, such as multinational corporations Monsanto and Dow, as well as major grocers, retailers, chambers of commerce, and non-organic food growers.

Supporters of labeling laws point to unknown dangers to human and environmental health that lurk in the manipulation of the genetic makeup of crops like soy and corn, as well as the power over the world’s food supply that GMO seeds represent for agribusiness giants.

But opponents of labeling laws insist GMOs are safe and allow science to address a growing population amid deteriorating environmental conditions such as those caused by climate change.

In 2012, Monsanto and company spent $46 million to kill Proposition 37, a California ballot initiative that would have mandated GMO labeling.

Two demonstrators hold a sign during a rally in support of the initiative, commonly known as the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act in San Francisco, California October 6, 2012. (Reuters / Stephen Lam)

A similar ballot initiative in Washington state failed last fall, as many of the same anti-labeling corporate behemoths flooded the campaign with a total of $22 million – nearly three times as much as supporters could raise – in convincing the state’s constituents they should vote against the mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

In April, Vermont became the first US state to pass a labeling law. Connecticut and Maine also have labeling laws, though they only go into effect if and when surrounding states also pass similar laws. GMO labeling is required in 64 countries, including the European Union. Russia recently barred the import of GMO products.

Powerful food industry and biotechnology players are currently banding together on many fronts to protect their investment in GMO technology despite national and international pushback. Their main effort in the US is seen in federal legislation that would block states from passing mandatory GMO labeling measures like Vermont’s, despite the right to know movement’s rising popularity.

Polling suggests over 90 percent of Americans would prefer GMO ingredients in consumables to be labeled to some extent.

The claim that genetically-engineered food poses no risk to human and environmental health is far from settled, despite the industry's assertions.

In October, 93 international scientists said there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support what they said were false claims made by the biotech industry about a so-called “consensus” on GMO safety. They said more independent research is needed, as existing studies that say GMOs are safe are overwhelmingly funded and supported by biotech companies.

GMO crops are now grown in 28 countries, or on 12 percent of the world's arable land, with the acreage doubling every five years. However, in the European Union, only two GMO varieties (compared to 96 in the USA) have so far been licensed for commercial harvesting.

GMOs have been in the food supply since the 1990s, and are included in roughly 70 to 80 percent of products available to American consumers, according to food manufacturers. The most widely used GMO crops in the US are corn, soybeans, and canola.

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