Obama Signs Pro-Corporate GMO Labeling Law, Doesn’t Require GMOs to be Labeled

By Johanna Lundahl, AGRA Watch Intern and Blogger

GMO labeling activists march in San Francisco in 2013. Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr/cc

On July 29th, while the nation was digesting Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of the democratic nomination for President, President Obama quietly signed S.764, the first national GMO labeling bill, into law. The bill was signed with no fanfare and little National press. Seemingly the answer to anti-GMO activists’ prayers, the bill mandates that companies disclose whether their food products contain genetically modified organisms—or does it?

Called by opponents the “Denying Americans the Right to Know” (DARK) act, under this law companies may choose any of three methods to inform consumers that their product contains GMOs: a text label,  symbol, or QR code readable by smartphone. Small companies will be allowed to include a phone number or web address that will lead consumers to the information.

Which option will companies selling GMO-derived products probably choose? Most likely the option that is most difficult for consumers to access, and provides the least amount of information.  One third of Americans don’t own smart phones, especially among the elderly, and low-income families, disproportionately of color. So when corporations choose to hide information on GM foods behind a QR code, up to a third of the population won’t have access.

There are no current fines included in the DARK act for not adding a label, image, or QR code, making most of the law unenforceable. Companies will even have two full years to enact the changes, and in the meantime consumers are still left without the information on GMOs in their food.

The DARK act essentially overrules and undermines all individual state GMO labeling laws. It supercedes a Vermont GMO labeling law that went into effect July 1, which has tighter wording and requires GMO products to be clearly labeled. It overturns Connecticut’s GMO labeling law, as well as laws in Virginia and Vermont on GMO seed labeling. It even supercedes Alaska’s law calling for the labeling of GE fish or fish products, which was passed to protect Alaska’s vital fisheries from the recently approved introduction of GE salmon.

The federal bill was drafted in response to Vermont's GMO labeling law. Supporters say it creates a national standard, but critics say the law is weaker than Vermont's.
Photo: Kathleen Masterson/ VPR File

Despite the DARK setback, the trend towards labeling has been underway for some time. Multinational Danone, voluntarily labels it’s GMO-containing foods, as do Dr. Bronner’s soap products; pledges to label from Campbell’s and Mars underline the fact that consumer desire for labelling has been recognized by the industry. Consumers and physicians are concerned by possible health effects of eating GMO foods, not necessarily due to lack of research about the products’ engineering, but also because 90% of GMO crops are engineered to withstand high pesticide use, including Glyphosate, which has been classified by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen. Residues of this, or other pesticides and herbicides are a major concern not only for consumers, but also for the laborers growing GE crops, and the environment.

The intense political lobbying around this bill has deeply divided the organic industry, as the DARK act gives special stipulations to growers certified by the Organic Trade Association. It allows the organic certification to be regarded as, “…sufficient to make a claim regarding the absence of bioengineering in the food, such as “not bioengineered”, “non-GMO”, or another similar claim.”

The leadership of the Organic Trade Association(OTA) endorsed the bill without consulting a large portion of it’s members, inciting major criticism from important members of the OTA. The OTA describe their decision as a “compromise”, to protect their organic food standards in Congress, but it’s seen as a betrayal by many. Ronnie Cummins, the Director of the Organic Consumers Association(OCA), called out some of the big name organic companies as traitors to the GMO labeling movement, saying that they cut backroom deals to save their own products from being labeled at the expense of consumers. Ben Bronner, of organic soap company Dr. Bronner’s, and a major donor to several state GMO labeling initiatives, threatened to leave the OTA if he didn’t see a change in the current policy. In a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post called, The Organic Trade Association’s Betrayal of the Movement for Mandatory GMO Labeling, Bronner lays the bill’s passage entirely at the feet of the OTA leadership, pointing out that the OTA’s endorsement was critical to the bill being passed.

The White House framed the DARK act as a way to enact national standards for GE labeling, instead of the patchwork of differing states’ standards which has formed in recent years. Activists such as Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, and an ally of AGRA Watch, called out the law as an attack on states’ rights.

“This is a slap in the face for all of the activists that have worked hard to pass state-level measures because they believe strongly that labels should be transparent,” Hauter said in a recent statement.

Hauter is correct in the view of AGRA Watch: People have the right to know when they are purchasing, and consuming foods containing genetically modified ingredients. While on the surface this new bill may seem to address the concerns of the nine out of ten Americans who support the labeling of genetically modified foods, there is much to be suspicious of. The DARK act nullifies hard won victories, doing more harm than good.

The legislation won’t go unchallenged. Within a day of the President signing the bill, FoodDemocracyNow! announced it’s intention to file a lawsuit against the law, based on grounds that the law infringes on consumer’s 14th Amendment right of the constitution which guarantees “equal protection for all”. The Center for Food Safety(CFS), a partner of AGRA Watch, and a veteran of various legal battles surrounding GE organisms, is also launching a lawsuit against the DARK act– CFS put out a call for donations to aid in the legal fight. The OCA even launched an app that smartphone-owning consumers can use to scan product labels, and learn whether that product’s parent company lobbied for the DARK act, gaining the knowledge to make informed consumer decisions. Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety will keep us abreast of any developments in the continued GMO labeling fight.

Soil Fertility: Agro-Ecology and NOT the Green Revolution for Africa

In mid July the African Center for Biodiversity(ABC) published Soil Fertility: Agro-Ecology and Not the Green Revolution for Africa, a comprehensive report on the consequences of the Green Revolution push in Africa, based on it’s fieldwork done in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe over the last three years.The report asserts that the promotion of increased synthetic fertilizer use in Africa for enhancing soil fertility is a short term fix, and is actually harmful in the long term.

Interventions pushing for high tech solutions such as genetically modified seeds, increased pesticide use and increased use of synthetic fertilizers have been spearheaded by fertilizer giant Yara, and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa(AGRA), an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The ABC believes that, “the obsession with increasing
adoption and uptake of synthetic fertilizers on the continent seems to be more about opening up fertilizer markets for multinational corporations, and stimulating commercial output markets than about identifying and responding to the specific needs of farmers in their socio-ecological context.”

Soil life is easily disrupted through one size fits all applications of synthetic fertilizers for short term gains in yield. In Malawi for example, the country has increased yields on a macro level due to the use of such fertilizers, but individual farmers are seeing the quality of their soil decrease, and are struggling to make ends meet. Since the price of synthetic fertilizer makes up a huge expense for the farmers, while imprinting them with the idea that it’s impossible to farm without it. The ABC, as well as AGRA Watch, agree that analysis of specific nutrient requirements for a given place and time are the only way to improve soil quality, and address the needs of farmers.

Cover Crops: A Simple Solution to Degrading Soil Quality

Photo Credit: Food First

Roland Bunch, a researcher and activist for Food First, published a report focused on fact that in Sub-Saharan Africa smallholder farmer’s lands have gotten smaller on average due to population increase and growing amounts of wasteland. This decrease in the size of farms has resulted in the decline of the practice of letting a large portion of such land lie fallow for years at a time, while farmers are able to feed themselves and their families with the rest of it. Without letting their lands have a rest, Bunch says, the soil quality which has held steady for some 3000 years is now declining from overuse.  

In his report, Green Manure Crops in Africa: A Report from the Field, Bunch detailed his agroecological approach to educating smallholder farmers about the use of green manure, also known as cover crops(GM/CC), which can be grown in tandem with the farmer’s regular crops. Bunch found that the right green manure/cover crop for the specific region can return nutrients to the soil while growing usable foods for local communities.
Bunch has been investigating the use of planting crops that can fertilize the soil since the early eighties. Working with an independent group of agronomists from Brazil, he has led an effort to put these methods on the agendas of prominent development agencies. He was also very important to the introduction of the campesino a campesino(farmer to farmer) movement in Central and Southern America; cover crops were a central part of that movement.




Smallholder support at the Crossroads: Diminishing returns from Green Revolution Seed and Fertilizer Subsidies and the Agro-Ecological Alternative

Zimbabwe-report-2016On April 30, 2016, The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) released a report on the the impacts of the Green Revolution on small-scale farming and related socio-ecological contexts. The research is part of a three year multi-country initiative that engages farmers, farmer associations, farmer support organizations, extension workers, scientists, donors, and government officials. Following initial conversations with Zimbabwean civil society organizations (CSOs), the report works to highlight the potential areas for further work with regard to seed policies in the region.

The full report can be found at http://acbio.org.za/wp

Taking A Stand for Small Farmers: Agroecology Learning Exchange


Pic-from-Uganda-Meeting-300x169The Agroecology Fund and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) hosted a learning exchange summit from May 10-13, 2016.  Farmers and farmer advocates convened in Masaka, Uganda, with the collective vision to “amplify agroecology solutions.”  Attendees documented the summit using the hashtag #AgroecologyVoices. 
The Agroecology Fund is a multi-donor fund committed to supporting and encouraging the established practices of local farmers and their communities globally. It aims to sustain viable food systems, promote the economic well-being of small farmers and their communities, and address climate change. 
CAGJ and AFSA have collaborated in the past, most recently at the Fall 2014 US-Africa Food Summit.
agro summit.jpg
Farmer voices and photos of the summit can be found at https://storify.com/IDEX/taking-a-stand-for-small-farmers.

EU Parliament Agrees With a Report that’s Highly Critical of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition


March 2014, World Development Movement(WDM) campaigners(above, below) dressed as business people from Monsanto, Diageo, SABMiller and Unilever delivered a cake to the  Department For International Development to “thank” the UK government for its support in allowing them to carve up Africa.

In early June the EU Parliament voted to accept a report put out by it’s development committee, in which The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an initiative of the Obama administration and the G-8, including the Gates Foundation, was heavily criticized for being ineffective as a means for improving world development.

In their article, EU parliament slams aid scheme that uses big agribusiness to ‘feed Africa’, Global Justice Now applauded the decision, as does AGRA Watch, agreeing that the New Alliance is an initiative meant to benefit big agribusiness instead of helping small-scale farmers, and vulnerable communities. It’s past time that world governments are held responsible for the funding of such initiatives that serve their own business interests over those of farmers and local communities.

The EU has spent over one billion dollars implementing the New Alliance, and the UK Department for International Development(DFID) is responsible for sending $600 million to date.

The report detailed many negative consequences of the initiative, and even called some of them “unintended”, although it suggested that the New Alliance served as “little more than a means of promotion for the companies involved and a chance to increase their influence in policy debates.”

Bill Gates on the “Best Practices” for the Developing World

Pushing Pro-Business Policy Change by Funding a Pro-Business Ratings System


Bill Gates and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim at a live panel discussion titled, “A New Vision for Financing Development with Bill Gates.”  Photo credit: The World Bank


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation(BMGF) is a major donor to a World Bank affiliate known as Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA), a group that rates 40 developing countries on their policies that affect agriculture and agribusiness markets. The Oakland Institute, a partner of AGRA Watch, critiqued the connection in their April article, With a Little Help From Bill Gates, The World Bank Creates it’s Own Aid Conditionality. According to the EBA, it’s mission is “…identifying and monitoring regulations that negatively affect agriculture and agribusiness markets.” It frames these ratings as a way to encourage higher levels of food production, believing that this will combat world hunger, claiming that it’s encouraging countries to become more efficient, while “increasing market competitiveness and growth”. The Oakland Institute, as well as the UN disagree with this idea, understanding that hunger is not caused by insufficient food production.

The Oakland Institute previously reported that the EBA’s predecessor, the Doing Business index, caused an estimated 525 policy changes that had the intended effect of reducing or getting rid of developing countries’ regulations on protecting local economies, and environments.

During a panel at the World Bank’s Spring Meetings in Washington DC, Bill Gates pushed his view that the forward path for world development was to use the Gates Foundation’s expertise to encourage developing countries to adopt the “best practices” for business and investment, wielding the influence of development aid for the goal of “reforming the system”. Both Gates and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim ignored the views of the Global South, as expressed by their co-panelist, Raghuram Rajan, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who called for development efforts to support the policies that developing countries actually want.

The Gates Foundation is contributing to a very problematic reality here. The EBA encourages reduced government oversight of agriculture, and agribusiness, and Gates’ economic power results in his being treated as an “expert” in the field of development aid, entitling him to disregard the objections of his colleague from the Global South. This power difference between the development agencies, the corporations and wealthy individuals benefiting from programs like the EBA, versus  the very countries this development is supposed to assist, results in a system that continuously disempowers developing countries instead of empowering them as AGRA Watch believes it should.



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