There’s a new federal law governing GMOs, and it preempts the poorly conceived, if well-meaning, state laws that have been pushed for the past decade. While state GMO bills have tended toward inclusion—concerns over Vermont’s GMO labeling law (when not focused on local protectionism) revolved around the ambiguity of the definition of “genetic engineering” and it’s potential to sweep in non-GMO foods—the new federal law favors exclusion—recognizing that foods shouldn’t be guilty by association.
This isn’t to say that the bill takes the side of disclosure skeptics at the expense of disclosure advocates. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard is a compromise bill with skeptic and advocate talking points practically shouting from the text.
Win for consumer disclosure supporters: the bill’s title and operative term “bioengineered” is broad and seemingly captures not merely the classic ‘pig gene implanted in corn’ frankenfood concerns, but a wider range of scientifically feasible techniques. The term lays down a marker for future legislation as techniques evolve.
Win for businesses concerned by the overbreadth of state legislation: the statute’s actual definition of “bioengineered” which is limited to: (1) in vitro recombinant DNA and (2) whether the result could be also achieved through conventional means or found in nature. In other words, for the time being, only foods that are exclusively outside of “nature” and GMO can be classified as “bioengineered.”
This split between broad term (“bioengineered”) and narrow definition (unnatural GMOs only) will restrict the scope of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations implementing mandatory GMO disclosure, but only to the extent that Congress retains the definition as written. So while the law prefers skepticism and clarity from a policy standpoint to alarmism, it does not suggest that consumers have no right to know how their food is made. Each side accepts limitations and preserves their options down the road.