Liberals fighting tooth and nail against White House efforts to finalize a sweeping global trade deal have found another hot-button issue to rally around—genetically modified foods.
Rep. Peter DeFazio—a progressive Democrat and vocal critic of President Obama's trade push and so-called "fast-track" legislation that would act as a blueprint for any agreement—along with environmental and food-safety groups Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety, and Food and Water Watch say that negotiations could undercut efforts in the United States and abroad to label GMOs.
DeFazio and food-safety advocates say the fast-track measure would classify GMO labels as a trade barrier. That in turn, they warn, would provide a justification for American negotiators to pressure countries to gut labeling laws and create a chilling effect for future labeling efforts in the United States and abroad.
"This agreement, this trade-promotion authority, ironically said that the highest objective of the United States of America is to undo genetically modified organism labeling in other countries," DeFazio said Wednesday during a call with reporters.
"People deserve to know what they're eating, so this is a very serious concern," said Patrick Woodall, a senior policy advocate for Food and Water Watch. "What we're talking about is an attack on basic transparency, basic disclosure about our food."
The GMO food fight is the latest front in a drawn-out battle pitting Democrats, environmental, and labor groups against the administration, as President Obama works to sew up major international trade deals and win passage of legislation that would give the White House broad authority to negotiate agreements.
"Should fast-track pass, it would mean that a consumer's right to know what is in their food is considered a barrier to the market for multinational corporations," DeFazio told National Journal.
The White House contends that deals with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union would strengthen the U.S. economy and help the United States compete abroad. But Democrats, environmental, and labor organizations warn that the deals will benefit multinational corporations at the expense of American workers and could undermine labor, human rights, and environmental standards.
GMOs have become a lightening rod in a national debate over industrial agriculture and the future of food. A mountain of evidence indicates that GMOs are just as safe to eat as conventionally grown crops, but the majority of Americans remain deeply skeptical. Amid public backlash, major chain restaurants, including Chipotle, have recently moved to ban GMOs. Sixty-four countries—although not the United States—currently have GMO labeling laws on the books.
Supporters of the trade legislation currently moving through Congress say claims that the law would undercut labeling are overblown. The bill does not require the United States to strike any particular deal and the provision that stands accused of potentially undermining GMO labeling is not new—it existed in legislation passed in 2002. Since then, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine have all adopted GMO labeling requirements, a statistic that suggests the earlier law has not halted labeling.
"There is nothing in this provision that would prevent a government from establishing a labeling regime that is science-based and doesn't discriminate against American farmers," said Julia Lawless, a spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee, which passed a version of the legislation sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch last month. "Rather than engaging in such baseless scare tactics, we hope lawmakers will focus on the merits of this bill, which helps create new opportunities for American agriculture."
Keith Chu, an aide to Wyden said that the senator "will only support trade agreements and trade legislation that don't prevent the United States from adopting labels that are accurate, nondiscriminatory, and do not mislead consumers."
A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative said that the United States has not asked for any changes to GMO labeling laws during negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. The spokesman added that there is nothing in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal the president is working to strike with Pacific Rim nations, related to GMO labeling.
"The United States supports science-based labeling for products derived from modern biotechnology," Matthew McAlvanah, a USTR spokesman, said.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association that represents Monsanto and other major biotech companies, says it is not pushing any provisions that would undercut GMO labeling during the negotiations.
"We support the U.S. policy that it should be voluntary not mandatory, but there are many countries around the world that label genetically engineered products, and we have never challenged the right of those countries to do that," said Matthew O'Mara, a spokesperson for the organization.