CURRENT BIODIVERSITY CONCERNS
Elpidio V. Peria
31 July 2016
When it was recently put out in the news last 29 July 2016 that US President Obama signed into law a measure making mandatory the labeling of GMO food products in the US, it seemed a surprising development given that this idea has been resisted by industry way back in the early days of the GMO wars in the US or in the Philippines in the late 90s and early 00s, even in the international arena in the negotiations of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which also carried a provision, though not an outright labeling measure, that will ultimately have the same effect
Looking closely at how the politics of the issue in the US played out, it seems the industry and grocery manufacturers put one over the consumers and advocates who fought long and hard for this measure to be realized.
Advocates of the same measure in the Philippines should watch out, since the US law might be used as a template to also shepherd along a similar measure in the Philippines, which was first filed by then Congressman Bobby Tanada, back in the year 2001 onwards.
As reported by the Wasthington Post, the US Congress hurried the approval of the measure to pre-empt a much tougher state law on mandatory labeling of GMOs, in Vermont, where Sen. Bernie Sanders hails from, which was supposed to take effect last July 1.
Andrew Kimbrell, the Executive Director of a US NGO dealing with these issues, the Center for Food Safety put out a statement that mainly says the following :
• The law discriminates against more than 100 million Americans since it allows companies and producers to use QR codes, 1-800 numbers and other difficult to access technology to label food products that contain GMOs, instead of clear, on-package text.
• The law also sets a dangerous precedent to override the sovereignty of states, as many state labeling laws, including Vermont’s recently enacted GMO labeling law, are now void.
• The FDA said the bill’s narrow and ambiguous definition of “bioengineering,” would “likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to this bill” and that it “may be difficult” for any GMO food to qualify for labeling under the bill.
Looking closely at what the measure did, a close scrutiny of the bill that was passed by the US Senate, S. 764, which was the law that was passed, yielded the following :
• Not later than 2 years after the enactment of the law, the Secretary of Agriculture shall establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered;
• Defined bioengineered food as food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.
• Required that the form of a food disclosure… be a text, symbol or electronic or digital link, but excluding internet website Uniform Resource Locators not embedded in the link, with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer
The requirement that the disclosure or the label will be at the discretion or selection or option by the food manufacturer, which most probably takes into account the costs of setting up this information requirement, defeats the purpose of enabling the consumer to be aware of what’s in the food that they buy. As pointed out by GMO labeling advocates, the consumers hardly bother to check these bar codes or any other label in the food that they buy for that matter and it does not really educate the consumers.
Anyway, the US has two years to work out the details of such rules.
In the Philippines setting, we checked the website of the Philippine House of Representatives and the Philippine Senate and using the key words “GMO labeling” or “gm food labeling” for the current 17th Congress (2016-2019) , we were not able to find any bill filed with such key words, meaning there is no bill or proposed measure to address the matter of labeling of GMO foods and their by-products in this recently-elected Congress.
In the 16th Congress, there was such a bill, by Congressman Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro, House Bill 4192, which mainly amended the Food and Drug Act while another bill, HB 4352, by Congresswoman Leah Paquiz of Ang NARS-Party-list, created a new office to be attached to the Food and Drugs Administration, the GMO CROP, FOOD AND BEVERAGE LABELING COUNCIL, that will carry out the task enumerated in the bill.
Filipino advocates for the labeling of GM food products and other derivatives thereof should be mindful of the various developments in genetic engineering technology that do not only involve DNA techniques, including that of synthetic biology, that may also find its ways in food substitutes of rare or those which are difficult to gather in the wild natural products, so that it may be included in any proposed labeling measure that they may find the time to push. The Biodiversity, Innovation, Trade & Society (BITS) Policy Center, Inc. is ready to lend its experience and know-how in drafting these measures taking into account these new developments, to any Congressional or Senate office or group that may push this measure.
The bottomline is, the US GMO labeling law, while laudatory in its purpose, may have some anti-consumer effects in its implementation, it should not be the one followed in the Philippine setting