Tuesday, February 5, 2013

GMOs, Industry Involvement, and Preemption - A Word of Caution

Photo via: planetmattersandmore.com
I read an interesting take on possible federal GMO labeling legislation today that cautioned against a potentially dangerous and irreversible situation known as preemption. This comes after a flurry of other articles like this one came out that discuss the possibility of big food supporting GMO labeling.  It might be hard to believe that conventional food retailers would support a federal labeling initiative, but when you look at it from the perspective of money, ease, and stability, it makes more sense.  After all, it's a lot easier for a multinational corporation like Walmart to have one labeling law to deal with in the United States rather than a host of different state laws, and putting an end to grassroots organizing helps their bottom line, reduces the possibility of PR trouble, and generally creates a more stable situation for their business to operate in.  Big food isn't supporting labeling to protect the consumer, however, and big ag isn't about to let the GMO labeling bill of our dreams get written up. That's where compromise and preemption come into play.  An excerpt from the article I first mentioned reads:
[There is an] ominous potential downside of federal GMO labeling: a sneaky legal concept known as preemption. Most advocates don’t find out about it before it’s too late.

Preemption simply means that a higher law trumps a lower law: so federal trumps state, and state trumps local. But in practice, it’s industry’s way of ensuring uniformity and stopping grassroots efforts. How I do know this? From years of experience of seeing it happen in various public health issues. It’s such a huge problem that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded an entire project called “Preemption and Movement Building in Public Health” to educate advocates about how to handle it.

Here is the pattern: a grassroots effort builds over time to enact local or state laws (such as gun control, indoor-smoking laws, or restricting alcohol sales), and industry fights these efforts for years, until they can no longer win. At that point, industry lobbyists turn around and either get their own weak bill passed, or work with advocates to pass a compromise version. In exchange, this law will preempt or prevent any state or city from passing a different or stronger law. Forever.
So if industry and grassroots efforts come to a compromise sometime in the future and produce a federal GMO labeling bill, preemption could prevent stronger legislation from being passed on the state level.  This effectively transforms the federal initiative from being a foundation for stronger more effective legislation into being a watered down action plan that stifles and oppresses future progressive initiatives.  That's not to say that a federal GMO labeling bill is a bad idea - it's a great idea if accomplished through care and caution.  Let's make sure that when a labeling bill is passed, whether at the state or federal level, it does what we want it to do.

Have a great evening!

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