Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Senate D.A.R.K. Act Hearing: A Short Review

This morning, the Senate held a hearing regarding the bill H.R. 1599, known colloquially as the Denying Americans the Right to Know (D.A.R.K.) act. This bill was written by the biotech and processed food industries to prevent the passage of any state or federal laws mandating the labeling of GMO foods. If this bill passes into law, states will no longer have the right to pass laws that require GMO labeling, and Vermont's recent GMO labeling law will become void.

The hearing invited 8 guest witnesses from various governmental regulatory agencies (FDA, EPA, UDSA), food industries, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and one medical doctor. Of these, only one witness was in favor of GMO labeling, representing the consumer interest: Gary Hirshberg of Stoneyfield Farm, Inc. The outcome was predictable. From the opening statements to the closing, the whole tenor of the discussion was favorable towards GMO's and critical of public concern for GMO labeling. The most frequently repeated concern of the senate was how to communicate more effectively to the general public about the safety of GMO foods so that this debate would not continue to arise (their general attitude seemed to imply that this hearing was a waste of time).

Key quotes (sorry but I don't have names for most of these, the discussion went back and forth too quickly for me to record them):

  • GM foods have been "proven safe."
  • GM foods are the solution to an increasing world population and allow for increased crop production.
  • BT toxin has "virtually no impact" on organisms other than insects.
  • "This is clearly a matter of what consumers want vs. what they need" (implying we need GM crops for our future survival).
  • The nutrition of GM food is exactly the same as non-GM foods (someone even said GM foods are sometimes better!).
  • Someone said they were happy to see such a "diverse panel of witnesses" (What?! I guess if you consider "diverse" to be all except one witness supporting the same viewpoint, then, by that definition, yes, it was very diverse. Really, I had to laugh at that one.)

Mr. Hirshberg did a generally good job advocating for the pro-labeling camp. His main approach was based on a "why not?" kind of argument. He explained the reasons why it would do no harm to the food industries to simply add a factual statement to their ingredients label designating "genetically modified corn" (or soy, or whatever). He gave statistical examples from other countries to support this assertion. And he argued that as the Senate seems to be concerned with building public trust in the government's regulatory measures, this would be the easiest and best way to do that. He also pointed out that 9/10 Americans are pro-labeling. Where Mr. Hirshberg got weak was when the soft-ball question got thrown to him, "Do you believe GMO foods are safe?" Mr. Hirshberg dodged the issue by stating he thought it was clear that the government regulatory agencies believed they were safe; however, that there were significant concerns which were not represented by this hearing. Well, that was an understatement if ever there was one. And he refrained from actually answering the question. At first, I thought he got weak-kneed. However, I think perhaps he didn't want to further stigmatize the pro-labeling proponents as ignorant pseudo-science freaks (as he was likely to be labeled at that point in the debate, had he come out so definitely), thus further jeopardizing the pro-labeling agenda. If so, I can understand his thinking; however, it was still disappointing.

So what's left? Well, call your Senators ASAP and let them know that their constituents care about this issue. Remind them that they represent you and that nine out of ten of you want GMO labeling. Ask them to represent the people in their vote. Tell them you are concerned that the discussion in the senate hearing was one-sided and did not adequately represent the legitimate scientific concerns with GMO safety that warrant further investigation. Ask them to do more research for themselves so that they can better understand the public's concern to know whether their foods contain GM products.

Also, if you want to read more about the concerns regarding GMO's, I recommend you to read the Union of Concerned Scientists' Failure to Yield report from 2009. Also, the Global Citizens Report on the State of GMO's from 201l. Both of these are accessible online.