GMOs Finally Get a Label….Sort Of

Did you happen to notice that there are now federally-mandated rules for labelling GMOs? If you missed the news, you wouldn’t be alone. It slipped in under the public radar on December 20, when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced them on the Friday just before Christmas.

The new label regulations have ambiguities and loopholes that you could drive a two-ton corn-hauling truck through. Let’s take a quick dive into what the labels are, what they mean, and the man behind them—Sonny Perdue, the Trump-appointed head of the USDA and former Governor of Georgia (2003-2011). Before shepherding the labels, he made a small fortune from businesses enmeshed in the multi-billion dollar GMO economy.

The Who.

Sonny Perdue, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate Agriculture Committee, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from agri-businesses involved in the transport and marketing of GMOs over at least a decade he spent in the trucking and shipping business. First there’s the $598,591 in income reported from his namesake trucking company, Perdue, Inc, which specializes in transporting grains, namely corn and soybeans. The overwhelming bulk of those 2 crops are GMOs.  (Eighty-eight percent of U.S. corn and ninety-four percent of soy are grown from genetically modified seeds, according to the Food and Drug Administration.) Then there’s Houston Fertilizer and Grain Company and ProAg, two companies specializing in the transport and processing of feed for cows, pigs and chickens, most of which is derived from GMO ingredients. Those companies netted Perdue a combined income of $78,612. Perdue was also founding CEO of at least two companies, AGrowStar and ProAg, that trade in agricultural commodities—which in the US means a significant volume of GMO corn and soybeans, and which generated a combined income of $65,333.

Thus, the man whose businesses operated clearly within the GMO ag-economy (assets are now in a blind trust) was charged with making the critical determination as to how GMO’s should be labelled.

The What.

The USDA issued an official list of what it calls ‘bioengineered’ foods, which starting in 2022 must come with some form of a label. In addition to corn and soybeans the list includes alfalfa, eggplant, papaya (of the ‘ringspot virus resistant’ variety), pineapple (of the ‘pink flesh’ variety), summer squash, sugar beets and salmon.

Note that there’s been a vocabulary switch. What most people refer to as GMO’s—genetically modified organisms—are now officially known as ‘bioengineered’, a term considered more neutral by the USDA. Then there’s the label itself: It’s kind of cute, designed to allay concerns of consumers that there’s any difference between GMO and non-GMO food. (More on that in Seeds of Resistance).  Here’s what they look like, with two options, in color or black and white:

The term ‘bio-engineered’ suggests an association with traditional plant breeding—which has always involved selecting, or ‘engineering’ the most favorable traits. The term, ‘genetic modification’, by contrast, suggests how much of a departure from traditional plant breeding is involved in creating a GMO—which means introducing genes into a plant from a non-related species. That includes injecting a trout gene into a strawberry seed, for example, or the genes of a virus introduced into a corn kernel.

And what’s not included on the mandatory labelling list is problematic, says the Center for Food Safety, which has been monitoring GMO’s for several decades. Processed foods containing genetically modified ingredients (aka ‘bioengineered’) were exempted from label requirements after heavy lobbying from the processed food industry. The Center is suing the Trump administration for failing to make public the documents it used to devise the labelling rules.

The How.

A label is a label is a label, right? Not exactly.   Allow me to quote from the USDA: “Regulated entities have several disclosure options: text, symbol, electronic or digital link, and/or text message.” Translation: the label can be placed on the product itself, like with one of those ‘bioengineered’ stickers for example. Or there are other options: an 800 number, presumably with an operator or robot on the other end to whom an interested consumer can convey a product code and get the answer, gmo or no. Or, another option, a website via ‘electronic or digital link’, that consumers can log onto, all while whizzing through a market looking for food. Which assumes access not only to wi-fi but also to a mobile device, which many Americans do not have the resources to obtain.

Sound complicated?  It is. Current polls indicate there is rising public skepticism about GMOs. Imagine the option that a company interested in shielding the genetic provenance of their products might choose.

The Which.

The USDA defines products that must be labelled as any food containing more than 5% genetically engineered ingredients. That threshold is eighty percent higher than the 0.9% labelling threshold in the European Union. It is also significantly higher than the contamination rates that are rampant across the Midwest, as I report in Seeds of Resistance.  In one chapter I follow the trail of GMO contamination down the Mississippi River and its many tributaries. Farmers along those routes have lost millions of dollars upon discovering that their crops have been contaminated with 1%-2% genetically engineered ingredients. In an instant, they lose organic certification. Instead of selling their crop to humans willing to pay a ‘non-GMO’ premium, they’re forced to sell to cattle and chicken farms at half the price.  Contamination from cross-pollination or simply seeds left on shared trucks or tractors is so widespread that farmers across the Midwest are demanding that the seed companies selling GMOs take financial responsibility for the non-GMO farmers’ losses. “Contamination puts our farmers in the middle of the shooting gallery,” John Bobbe, the head of the Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing, told me.

The USDA’s official label threshold comes nowhere close to the contamination levels being experienced by farmers across the country. It also means that you may not know whether the food you’re eating contains levels of modified genes below that 5% threshold.

The Why.

The labelling law was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in the summer of 2016. The bill passed after Vermont passed its own labelling law, and Oregon and Washington were on the verge of doing so. Between 2013 and 2015, grocery and agri-business firms poured more than $143 million to block such state-level labelling initiatives, and millions more into lobbying to prevent such measures from coming to a vote in Congress. In the face of mounting public pressure,  a compromise was passed in the waning days of the Obama administration. In return for withdrawing opposition, the industry coalition obtained two key provisions in the new federal labelling law: The federal rules would pre-empt any more rigorous state labelling regulations, and it would be the GMO-friendly Department of Agriculture, and not the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency, that would write the rules. The deadline was July 2018; the USDA delivered them five months late, at the height of the Christmas season. Thus it was that the labelling regs, which Food & Water Watch denounced as “keep[ing] consumers in the dark, “ landed in the lap of Sonny Perdue, whose companies before he took office in DC delivered millions of tons of GMOs to processors and shippers across the country.


*Thanks to Grace Ramsdell for background research on this blog*