U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts may have found a bipartisan resolution to the nation’s patchwork of GMO labeling laws but that hasn’t extinguished fiery debates over his latest legislation.
On Thursday, the Senate voted 63-30 in favor of legislation requiring labels on all food that has been genetically modified. The bill tasks the U.S. Department of Agriculture with determining what foods that would include.
Much to the dismay of GMO skeptics, the labels wouldn’t have to include words or photos. Food companies could instead use a QR code — a bar code that is scanned by smartphones — to inform consumers.
The bill is a compromise between Roberts, a Kansas Republican, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan. Roberts chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and Stabenow is its ranking Democrat.
“Today is a victory for farmers, ranchers, sound science, and anyone who eats on a budget,” Roberts said after his bill’s passage Thursday, calling the Senate vote “the most important vote for agriculture in the last 20 years.”
As with many congressional compromises, the bill failed to appease the Senate’s most conservative and most liberal lawmakers. Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Sessions of Alabama voted nay, as did liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“People should not need a smartphone in order to get basic information about what is in their food,” Sanders said Thursday.
The bill is especially grating to Sanders because it voids Vermont’s labeling law. That law — which requires words, not QR codes, on genetically modified products — has led some companies to pull their products out of Vermont. Other companies, such as General Mills and Campbell’s Soup, have instead opted to add GMO labels on all of their products across the country.
Despite the wonky nature of the debate, GMO labeling legislation has spurred strong emotions and political hyperbole on both sides for years. Speaking in Topeka in February, Roberts said “Vermont, unfortunately, decided to leave the union” when it passed its law. GMO critics on the political left accuse agricultural giant Monsanto of buying votes.
“The Stabenow-Roberts GMO ‘labeling’ bill was bought and paid for by Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association,” Sanders said.
As the Senate took a procedural vote on the bill Wednesday, anti-GMO protestors with the Organic Consumers Association yelled “Monsanto Money!” and threw $2,000 onto the Senate floor. Four people were arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawfully demonstrating.
Criticisms aside, the bill is a compromise. The Senate in March refused to pass an earlier Roberts bill that would have prohibited states from requiring GMO labels. A lack of Democratic support doomed that legislation.
When Roberts went back to the drawing board, he was joined by Stabenow. The result was a bill that requires GMO labels but allows them to be in the form of QR codes.
The matter now goes to the Republican-controlled House, where it should face a favorable crowd. An earlier version of the bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, passed easily last summer.
“Although the Senate agreement may not be my ideal solution,” Pompeo said, “this legislation still accomplishes what I set out to do nearly three years ago: protect Kansas families’ access to safe and affordable food and Kansas farmers’ ability to feed a growing world.”
President Barack Obama hasn’t yet indicated whether he supports the Roberts-Stabenow bill or would sign it if it reaches his desk.
Sarah Little, a Roberts spokeswoman, said the USDA and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have called for a solution to the Vermont law and commended Roberts’ work toward finding one.
“In crafting the bill, we worked with USDA to ensure it would be able to be implemented by the department,” Little said. “Right now we are focused on the House.”
Contact Justin Wingerter at (785) 295-1100 or @JustinWingerter on Twitter.