Pro-GMO advocates capitulate to support GMO label law: Is this science’s Munich agreement?


It is remarkable to see broad and bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate come together to pass this GMO disclosure legislation. Republicans and Democrats found consensus on the common ground that a patchwork of different state labeling laws. This is a win-win for every American family in every state.

Grocers Manufacturers Association

What today really means is that we’ve left the legislative period of this battle after seven years and moved into the regulatory and marketplace phase of it, which was where it was always headed anyway.

Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Organics and Just Label It 

The GMO labeling fight is over, eh?

In what can only be described as the Munich Agreement of food labeling (the infamous accord signed by Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, who declared it would bring “peace for our time” that actually led to an escalation of World War II), the agricultural, food and biotechnology industries appeased the bullies in the anti-GMO movement to reach a “compromise” on mandatory GMO labels. The House passed a Senate-approved bill on July 14, and the reaction from both sides is encapsulated in the quotes above.

So, while one side is declaring peace the other side is mapping out its next move to seize more territory. After all, this war isn’t about transparency or the consumers ‘right to know’ as biotechnology opponents often claim; it’s about power: political and marketplace power.

It’s hard to look into every corner of this fight and not see the manicured fingerprints of Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Organics and mastermind/funder of the pro-labeling movement. Hirshberg became a gazillionaire when he sold most of Stonyfield several years ago which afforded him the time and money he needed to make himself a celebrity by promoting GMO labels. He’s a shrewd and calculating businessman; the way he contrived to turn a science debate into a “consumer” issue, became its face and snookered others to follow him should be taught in B-schools around the country.

Hirshberg has rolled out all the stops to get his way on labeling. He knows how to manipulate both public sentiment and the levers of political power. He enlisted celebrities (including none other than the queen of White Privilege, Gwyneth Paltrow) to make videos and attend Capitol Hill pressers on his behalf. As a major Democratic Party donor, Hirshberg and his wife have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers; they were bundlers for President Obama and the couple attended a 2012 State Dinner at the White House as a token of the president’s gratitude. Several weeks before a key Senate vote on his issue, Hirshberg hosted a fundraiser for Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, who has since carried the water on mandatory labels.

Not exactly a humble New Hampshire organic dairy farmer with straw in his teeth.

Over the last several years, Hirshberg has set up pro-labeling groups to promote his agenda (Just Label It, Only Organic, Conceal or Reveal) and his company partners with other non-profits (Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety) that oppose genetically engineered crops. And a mostly sympathetic media has unwittingly—or co-conspiratorially— referred to these as “consumer advocacy” groups, giving virtuous cover to their real agenda. The same media has yet to ask Mr. Hirshberg how much of his personal fortune he’s spent pushing GMO labels, but they dutifully repeat the inaccurate figures on how much has been spent by pro-GMO “industry,” tallied by the same organization that employs the head of his Just Label It non-profit.

Yet, despite all his high-profile efforts, Hirshberg has few policy victories under his belt. In late 2015, the FDA issued a strong repudiation of mandatory GMO labels, reiterating that “genetically engineered foods are not materially different than other food.” Referenda Hirshberg pushed in four states requiring mandatory GMO labeling failed to get enough votes to pass. And labeling legislation has stalled in most other states, with Vermont the only place with mandatory GMO labeling.

Vermont was shaping up as a disaster for the pro-labeling forces, until Congress bailed them out. By all accounts, the law is a debacle with thousands of products being pulled from store shelves, food makers scrambling to replace GMO ingredients and threats of hefty fines hanging over the heads of food companies. It’s highly unlikely any state would have eagerly followed that lead. The law is tied up in federal court and there’s a good chance, say legal experts, that it could have been declared unconstitutional if the federal law usurping it had not been passed.

But leave it to hapless food/ag/biotech interests to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. How these industries have handled genetic engineering from the start is a cautionary tale. Instead of holding their ground and letting the Vermont law play out, they capitulated (these folks seem to me like the rich nerdy kid trying to curry favor with popular bullies by letting them drive his BMW; the popular kids drive it, use all the gas, crash it a few times and return it to the poor nerd, laughing.)

The beleaguered food execs apparently believed all the bad press about GMOs and probably figured a short-term victory on behalf of “transparency” would make them look good. They are—and remain—reluctant warriors for their own cause, and their opposition sense that. Their rush to just end this with the mistaken belief professional protestors will move on to another cause will probably backfire. Anti-GMO activists have a foot in the door and are hoping for a more sympathetic Congress in 2017 to rewrite the law and make on-package skull-and-crossbones label mandatory.

Lawmakers, too, reflected the fatigue and resignation of the pro-GMO side. I almost felt sorry for House Agriculture Committee chairmen Mike Conaway and Collin Peterson as they were trying to sell the Senate bill to their colleagues. The House passed a voluntary labeling law one year ago, and they didn’t seem a bit happy about making the rules mandatory. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes on this issue,” admitted Peterson during his half-hearted endorsement of the bill before the House Rules Committee meeting on July 13. “I’ve had people tell me, this isn’t about labeling, this is about getting rid of Round-Up Ready crops.”

Peterson also revealed the another motive behind the labeling crusade: “The problem is, with a lot of these big companies, they said, if you’re going to make us label, then we’re going to reformulate our products so we don’t have to put this on our label.” The anti-GMO activists want genetically engineered crops stopped here and around the world, they want GMOs replaced with non-GMO ingredients and they want companies that refuse to do so, punished with a label.

Hirshberg is poised to take his movement to the next level and exploit yet another demographic to get his way. The guy who features almost exclusively white people on his packaging and in his pro-labeling marketing will now try to paint QR codes as racist. None other than Jesse Jackson, in a stunt apparently orchestrate by the Center for Food Safety that had the fingerprints of Hirshberg all over it, weighed in nanoseconds after the House vote to say that QR codes raise “serious questions of discrimination and unresolved matters of equal protection of the law.” We can expect a lot more where that came from in the coming months and years as rules are finalized by the USDA.

It’s time for the pro-GMO side to regroup. The war is not over and you lost this battle. Science, common sense and the future of global food security are on your side. Act accordingly.

Julie Kelly is a cooking teacher, food writer and National Review online contributor. Follow her on Twitter at @julie_kelly2

  • mem_somerville

    Where was Jesse Jackson when Team Just Label It put the Congressional Black Caucus members in Vader helmets, because they worried about increasing food costs?

  • First Officer

    We still have an ace in the hole. We, too, can change the law. We can challenge the Federal law on 1st amendment grounds and, this time, the court will not have the option of deferring judgement in the hopes that a higher precedence will intervene.

    • Arthur Doucette

      You need to get used to disappointment. That is all there is in your future.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      I hope you are correct. this law increases the feds power to compel speech. A very bad thing in the long run. Can you say Neville Chamberlain?

    • Chris Girres

      There is nothing wrong or different with GMO it doesn’t need to be labeled it’s labeled on every bag of seed bought so it’s already labeled and this is no different then our ancestors did in the past as we stopped being hunters and gathers only difference is we can take and insert the wanted genes and in a few short years see if it’s been passed down if not toss it out start again it gets the product out faster and it’s cheaper because we can get it out faster and we can help feed an ever growing human population plants can adapt and it doesn’t hurt or change the DNA of the plant very much at all

  • Farmer with a Dell

    The marketing blunder committed by food distributors who caved in to the Vermont law by labeling their products is unforgivable. Basically they thumbed their nose at supporters and regular customers to appease activist fanatics who would never purchase their product, label or no.

    Moreover, with it’s “GMO” labeling wimp-out Campbell’s repeated a similar marketing mistake it made when it reduced sodium content in its soups to appease pop-science public health activists. The low salt soup didn’t sell (the activists who demanded the change did not buy Campbell’s soup, never did, never would, never mind they could have added salt to taste at home) and soon enough Campbell’s was introducing a new and improved line of full flavor soups (with original salt levels restored) to replace the bland ow salt product.

    For rational scientifically literate folks to consider the mandatory GMO vanity labeling bill, however compromised, a victory is a fundamental mistake. Now that Congress has mandated its first discriminatory vanity food label there will be others, every bit as frivolous. What food production process will be assailed next?

    • Arthur Doucette

      They didn’t cave in. Producers don’t have complete control over where their products are sold, so labeling was needed to avoid fines.

      As to Congress, it made sense to pass a national law because letting Vermont (and the next few states that would eventually pass a similar law) dictate national food labeling standards would have been a bigger loss.

      A nearly invisible label is the near perfect solution to this “just label it” demand by fanatics.

      They can’t say it isn’t labeled, because it is.
      They can only try to say the label isn’t good enough.
      Good luck with that.

      The USDA gets 2 years to come up with the rules, and that means that the head of the USDA will be either a Clinton or Trump appointee and since both are pro GMO, so that kind of gives you an idea of what the final rules will likely look like.

      Most importantly, the inclusion in the bill that the food must contain GE DNA should translate to labeling based on CONTENT and not SOURCE. A huge win for the food industry over Vermont’s law.

      • Farmer with a Dell

        Nonsense Art, food manufacturers could simply have stopped shipping into Vermont and advised distributors that their products were not to be offered for sale in Vermont, thereby transferring the liability onto unscrupulous distributors or resellers. Instead Campbells, Kelloggs, General Mills, ConAgra all caved, maybe thought they could get a marketing edge over the competition…maybe their greed in the marketplace is what let them sell out all of us innocent producers and consumers so easily, eh? Did they really think the handful of people forcing this labeling fight were really going to start buying their products just because they identified them as containing “GMO” hobgoblins? Nope, a marketing blunder.

        As compromises go, I guess we came away more or less intact…except that we are forced to apply a ridiculous vanity label to product that is safe and wholesome. The gates are now flung wide open for the next vanity label acknowledging some arbitrary alarmism over an innocuous production method, and for the next, and the next, and…

        • Arthur Doucette

          Its not nonsense. Why would Cambells, Kelloggs etc give up sales in an entire state when all they had to do was put “may contain GE ingredients” on the label? They didn’t sell out anybody and it was a sound business decision.

          Vermont passed a GMO labeling bill in 2014 which took effect in July of this year, but maybe you aren’t aware, but Maine also passed a GMO labeling law in 2014, but required similar legislation to be adopted in states with a combined population of at least 20 million for it to be enacted. Connecticut also passed legislation requiring GMO labeling, but the trigger clause in that bill requires four other states, one bordering Connecticut, to have GMO labeling laws and the combined population of those states had to be greater than 20 million. The concern is that in NY, the legislature is considering A. 617, a GMO labeling bill, which currently has 73 sponsors, nearly half of the Assembly, so if New York were to pass that bill, the combined population and the border clause would effectively put labeling laws in place in NY, Maine, Connecticut and Vermont.

          Also remember that Oregon just defeated labeling by a hair in the last vote, and you know they won’t stop trying, nor will Washington and probably California.

          What the Congress did is halt this state by state adoption of their own labeling laws (which were not identical) and by doing so, prevented GE ingredients from becoming too much of a burden for producers to want to use.

          The GE side won this one, because this effectively puts an invisible label on the products, and thus no stigma attached to GE ingredients.

          If, as I suspect, the USDA supports labeling based only on Content (and then not insignificant amounts) and not Source, the victory will be complete.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Get real Art. Vermont has a population of slightly more than 600,000 people. Not a drop in the international bucket if those sales were temporarily forfeited. But, of course, most of those sales would still take place as Vermonters would obstinately power their mighty Subarus into neighboring NY, NH, MA and Quebec to shop for good wholesome groceries their own Vermont legislature deems unsafe and inappropriate for consumption by the common rabble of the illustrious Green Mountain state.

            I agree it is a “win” for a rational thinking Americans that Congress put a halt to an insidious state-by-state adoption of arbitrary and capricious “anti-GMO” vanity labeling ordinances, including and especially those enacted by legislative bodies without voter referendums. When put to a vote, as you correctly point out Art, the labeling legislation has been defeated…every…single…time. The people have demonstrated they do not care to have “GMO” labeling and through the action of Congress the people will not be subjected to nanny statism, on this silly faux-issue of “GMO” vanity labels.

          • Arthur Doucette

            If it were only Vermont, maybe, but it really looked like most of the NE was going to go that way, and when it came up again in Oregon, it very well might pass.
            The last vote was won by a razor thin margin.
            No 753,574 50.03%
            Yes 752,737 49.97%

            When you are down to less than 0.2% margin, its time to do something more substantial than waging this expensive battle (Oregon cost $12 million) in all these states.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Oh, coulda been, shoulda been, woulda been — all the empty whining of a sore loser. And all this angst over a non-issue like the adoption of scientifically guided genetic engineering technology as just one in an impressive cascade of modern production methods employed to bring abundant safe affordable food to America’s families.

            This “issue” was never about transparency, it was and is all about marketing…or rather about de-marketing by employing not-so-subtle scare tactics. Your objection to the proposed “GMO” label law is not really that it doesn’t offer convenient transparency to a few interested grocer shoppers, rather your objection is that it doesn’t throw up in the faces of disinterested grocery shoppers your unfounded fear of genetic engineering and the safety of food in every direction these ordinary shoppers cast their gaze. You can stop posturing and distracting Art, your cult has been exposed, you hateful fools lost this time, it is over.

          • Arthur Doucette

            Clearly you don’t understand my position.

            I was never for labeling.

            But that position was losing, because of the fear tactics from people like Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Organics and mastermind/funder of the pro-labeling movement, who had deep pockets and a willingness to spend the money to make it happen.

            It worked in Vermont, Conn and Maine. It nearly worked in Oregon and Washington, and NY was too close to call.

            If NY went with it, so would the entire North East.

            And their labeling laws really sucked. Indeed, they would have gone a long way towards lowering the value of our prime GE crops. It was already having an effect on beet sugar.

            The new one, from the USDA, based on QR codes doesn’t suck. It won’t hurt the adoption of GE crops or the farmers that grow them.

            And it ends this long and expensive state by state fight. Unlike the author of this article, I believe the Pro-GMO proponents clearly won this battle.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Thanks for clarifying your position on this, Art. You had me worried about you there for a second. And yes, if we MUST have silly vanity labeling of foods, then QR codes are the way to go. They can potentially be useful for conveying a lot of other information to interested consumers, and not just soppy elitist special interest trivia either — could provide a platform to really inform and educate interested consumers. We will have to wait and see how USDA handles the ruling, though. If we don’t watch over USDA’s shoulder the organic and small farm special interest lobbies and their operatives will turn the QR code opportunity into a catastrophe.

          • Arthur Doucette

            I think the good news is that both Clinton and Trump are pro-GMO, so I think the USDA regs will be reasonable. But you are right, we have to stay diligent.

          • Chris Girres

            I understand factory farms that produce chickens,milk.beef,pork and using antibiotics or steroids can be dangerous but those factory farms only produce 2% of all those products it’s farmers and racers that produce the majority of those products as to which farmers don’t use growth hormones or antibiotics unless their livestock is sick because just as humans overuse of antibiotics leads to resistance which leads to high mortality rates and huge economic losses so on those products factory farms I can see but all others no because farmers are smart and sustainable. I mean I see commercials that say we only use 100% beef and the best cuts in our hotdogs ok let’s get real a hot dog is a hot dog they all are made the same way and they all say contain no more then 2% of poultry and pork byproducts and I’m sure you don’t really want to know what those byproducts are

        • Jason

          The gates may not be as open as you think. Any time there is some uproar over some new nonsense vanity label, the company could easily add something to the website that is referenced by their current QR code and be done with it. In other words, shut up the alarmists with out really doing anything at all.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Yep, I agree. That’s the beauty of QR codes.

            ‘Course we’ll have to wait and see how the special interest organic and small farm lobbies influence USDA when legislating the use of QR codes in the case of foods enhanced by GE. Remember how just a few years ago those same lobbies gutted the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) with the Tester amendment, which caused “small farms” to be exempt from complying with any food safety recommendations. Wouldn’t expect this “GMO” QR code rollout to be uneventful — the USDA is well infiltrated with anti-agricultural-technology scabs. Maybe under a new administration and a new Secretary of Agriculture we can get good, forward-looking rules but then again, who knows what comes next with all that?

        • Chris Girres

          Let’s not forget the marketing blunder of organic labeling because it’s not regulated or people aren’t informed what the real organic label is that anyone can slap on an organic label sticker on anything say it’s organic and charge a lot more just to make more money that’s the real scam to consumers paying high price for a non organic product

  • Stuart M.

    My understanding of the law is that it allows companies to put a QR code on the food packaging which, when scanned with a cell phone, will provide more “information” to the consumer on GMOs and GMO content. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful opportunity to give the consumer some science-based information on GMOs? It sounds like food producers who use GMOs have been given a captive audience.

    • NRGuest

      That might not be a bad idea. Have the QR codes redirect to an online Genetics 101 course.

      • Chris Girres

        Here it is simple there is no difference between non-GMO and GMO anxcept the desired trait or few it’s the same as you and I putting our DNA next to each other were the same except a few certain genes

    • Chris Girres

      If you want to know what’s in it just ask me it’s the same as non-GMO crop only difference is a gene or two have been turned of by using bacteria to insert into the DNA you will not see anything different scientifically only if you saw a DNA spectograph between the two will you be able to see the difference in gene frequency it’s basically like putting my DNA next to yours it all will look the same except a few different genes which make us unique it’s like parental testing only plants that are the same are those that come from the same two parent plants so honestly you will see no difference if I gave you a non-GMO corn plant and a GMO corn plant you wouldn’t be able to tell me any difference between the two and I or anyone else in the field can’t either that’s why we have to go test the DNA to see if it’s what we want

      • Stuart M.

        Dear Chris, thanks for the lecture, but you are preaching to the choir. I go out of my way to not buy organic because I know there is absolutely no nutritional difference between organic and conventional/GMO foods. But keep up the good fight. Have you donated to GLP yet? I have.

  • Arthur Doucette

    A nearly invisible label is the near perfect solution to this “just label it” demand by fanatics.

    They can’t say it isn’t labeled, because it is.
    They can only try to say the label isn’t good enough.
    Good luck with that.

    The USDA gets 2 years to come up with the rules, and that means that the head of the USDA will be either a Clinton or Trump appointee.

    BOTH are pro GMO, so that kind of gives you an idea of what the rules will likely look like.

    Labeling based on CONTENT and not SOURCE.
    Labeling based on Substantial content and not trace amounts.

    • John C


      “The label is too small and thus discriminatory against the visually impaired. You will hear from our lawyers if you don’t make it bigger.”

      “A big label is really just a big warning, or else why would it have to be so big? It’s a de facto admission that something dangerous is in the ingredients.”

      “Something dangerous needs to be banned.”

      “This is no different from what Big Tobacco did, willfully poisoning the public for profit. We need a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit for the victims of these now banned products – think of the children!!”

      • Arthur Doucette

        All sorts of things are on the label, the majority of them are just information about content, not any kind of warning. People can sue the USDA (in 2 years) but they won’t win. The most likely suit, if pressed (which is doubtful), that could win would be one about “compelled speech”, as in the rBST case.

        • John C

          Contains: Oxygen Dihydride, genetic material

          90% of the public would want those ingredients banned if they saw them on a scary big label. You’re assuming what would happen in Logical World. This is happening in Political / Demagoguery World. Two different systems entirely.

          • Arthur Doucette

            Who cares what some people might want?

            That’s why we have a representative government, so “Oxygen Dihydride” is not banned because it sounds scary to some.

            Congress came up with a good solution, if you can’t deal with it, write your congressman.

  • John C

    (Fill in the blank) raises “serious questions of discrimination and unresolved matters of equal protection of the law.”

    The classic shake down by race con men, from Obama all the way down to bottom feeders like Sharpton. Press the Liberal white guilt and fear of being called a racist button – receive $$, power – works every time.

  • Arthur Doucette