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What it does 

Labeling of genetically modified or bioengineered food stuffs is a topic of debate. Without requiring mandatory labeling requirements, this bill aims to set a standard to which any future labeling laws at the state level would need to comply (unless that food stuff is sold only within the state’s borders). The goal of the bill is to both limit ambiguity and set clear definitions on what constitutes a bioengineered food and when such products can include specific labeling.

S. 2609 would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to include a standard for voluntary labeling of bioengineering foods. While labeling of bioengineered foods under this standard would be voluntary, S. 2609 would:

  • Require the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture (the “Secretary”) to establish standard regarding which food items could be labeled as bioengineered and what processes a food item would have to undergo to be labeled as bioengineered.
  • Prohibit labeled foods from making claims of either positive or negative health implications.
  • Establish federal preemption of similar labeling laws which prevent states from establishing bioengineered food labeling requirements in any capacity that departs from the standards adopted under the legislation (to the extent such food is involved in interstate commerce).
  • Require the Secretary to:
    • Create necessary standards and definitions within a specified time period.
    • Provide consumers with science based information with respect to agricultural biotechnology through a number of means.
    • Report on specific aspects to Congress within four years of adoption of the legislation.
Relevant Science 

The first “genetic modification” of crops occurred through artificial selection in breeding, for example, breeding taller crops over many generations to increase the average size of the crops. What we now classify as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are developed using more complex measures that specifically alter crops’ genetic material in order to introduce non-natural, desirable traits or delete less desirable ones. The genome of a crop can be edited to either:

  • Insert a gene from another organism
  • Delete a piece of DNA from the original crop’s genome

Some GMO labeling legislation additionally cites hybridization techniques as genetic modification, in which cells from different organisms are chemically fused together to create daughter cells with characteristics of both parents. Because of its resemblance to traditional plant breeding, along with the fact that this method may pass along disadvantageous genes to offspring just as it passes along advantageous genes, this approach is not traditionally considered genetic modification.

The introduction of foreign genetic material can provide many advantages, such as

  • increased yields, increased resistance to pests and disease (and reduced need for pesticides), enhanced crop nutrient content, and enhanced crop viability in harsher soil and weather conditions.    

 

Endorsements & Opposition 

Endorsements:

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce expressed strong support for this bill to the Senate: “Without S. 2609, American businesses that produce, process, market, and distribute food and ingredients across the country could be subject to state efforts to require specific labels for food sold within each jurisdiction. Not only would such an outcome be untenable and cost prohibitive for American businesses and raise the cost of food for America’s most vulnerable populations; those labeling efforts would not provide the consumer with any useful information. Indeed, process-based labels—those that simply disclose that a food or ingredient was produced using a GE process—do not inform the consumer of any health risk or benefit.”

Opposition:

  • The Consumers Union, advocacy branch of Consumer Reports, opposes the bill and instead favors establishing mandatory labeling standards. In an open letter to the Senate, the organization states: “S. 2609…would maintain the current, flawed federal policy in which any labeling of GE food must be the voluntary choice of the food producer.” Further, “consumers want labeling. Polls, including our own and those conducted by others such as the New York Times, show that more than 90% of consumers want GE food to be labeled accordingly.”

The debate surrounding GMOs themselves is hotly contested. Proponents argue GMOs are safe for consumption and offer immense public health, agricultural and economic benefits. Thus far, there is no credible evidence of adverse health effects to humans resulting from consumption of GMOs. The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has reviewed the safety of GM crops, as has the UK’s Royal Society of Medicine, the European Union, and the World Health Organization. All have concluded that GM crops pose no unique hazards to human health. The NAS is expected to release an updated report in 2016.

Opponents cite potential risks of altering natural gene expression, including changes in the organism’s metabolism, growth rate and response to its environment, all of which could affect whether the crop is safe to consume and grow in certain ecosystems. Some worry that introduced genes could be allergenic or carry traits such as antibiotic resistance, negatively affecting human health. 

Status 

This bill was assigned to the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. It was reported by committee on March 1, 2016 to be further considered by the full Senate.

Sponsors 

Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS); the bill has no original cosponsors.

Primary Author 
Allison Roder
Editor(s) 
Thomas Williams, JD, MBE & Aubrey Incorvaia, MPP
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol, “National Voluntary Bioengineered Food Labeling Standard (S 2609, 114th Congress)” available at http://scipol.duke.edu/content/national-voluntary-bioengineered-food-labeling-standard-s-2609-114th-congress (03/01/2016).