Money tossed on Senate floor as Vermont’s Sanders and Leahy protest federal GMO bill

© Senator Jeff Merkley
A federal bill to label GMO foods garnered protests not only from Vermont senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, but also members of the group Organic Consumers. They threw $2,000 in bills down to the Senate floor during a vote.

“The American people have a right to know what they’re eating,” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “That is why states like Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and Alaska have adopted laws to label foods containing GMOs and why many other states are interested and on the path to doing that.”

The federal bill would undermine efforts by states around the US to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Vermont’s law went into effect on Friday, and was the first state in the country to mandate labeling for GMOs.

Due to the law taking effect, food manufacturers such as Campbell’s, Frito-Lay, Kellogg and ConAgra announced they are already labeling their products nationwide.

The federal bill, often referred to as the DARK Act or Denying Americans the Right to Know Act, would create a national standard for labeling genetically modified food. Critics say it is confusing, because it allows companies to label using text, symbols or an electronic quick response code (QR code). The bill also lacks federal penalties for violating the labeling law.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) released a list of amendments to the DARK Act at the press conference. The bill’s sponsors are expected to block any effort to amend the bill.

Among the amendments were striking provisions to preempt seed labeling laws, to strengthen the definition of bioengineering to encompass highly processed foods, to require the code to say “GE information” rather than “food information,” and to grandfather in Vermont’s law and other similar labeling laws enacted by 2016.

“Companies are already labeling foods that contain genetic engineering,” said Leahy, according to Vermont Biz. “It can be done. It should be done. More than 60 countries across the globe require GE labeling. American consumers want and deserve no less. I am proud that Vermont has led the way on a pro-consumer, pro-disclosure label, and I will continue to fight efforts to undermine it.”

Joining Leahy and Sanders at the press conference were Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), John Tester (D-Montana) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).

“The timing of this legislation is not an accident,” Sanders said. “Its goal is to overturn and rescind the very significant legislation passed in the state of Vermont. I will do everything that I can to see that it’s defeated.”

In a separate demonstration on Wednesday afternoon, members of the Organic Consumers Association threw money from the Senate gallery onto the floor to protest a procedural vote to advance the bill in the Senate.

Protesters yelled, “Monsanto Money” and urged Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) to “listen to the people, not Monsanto,” while $2,000 in cash floated to the floor. Stabenow was one of the lead sponsors of the federal bill.

Protesters said the money was to symbolize the money senators received from Monsanto and other agribusinesses.

“When Congress moves to crush the will of 9 out of 10 Americans because they need companies like Monsanto to fund their campaigns, you know our democracy is in real trouble,” Alexis Baden-Mayer, the Organic Consumers political director who participated in the action, said in a statement, according to The Hill. “The corporate lobbyists are totally corrupt.”

The Environmental Working Group calculated that food and biotech companies and trade associations have spent nearly $200 million to oppose state GMO labeling ballot initiatives such as Vermont's.