As the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) rages in states like Hawaii, Vermont and Oregon, members of Congress are considering setting a federal standard that some hope could put the issue to rest.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, introduced H.R. 4432 in April, which would create national rules for how and when genetically modified food should be labeled. The House Subcommittee on Health is considering the measure, known by proponents as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.

Although the bill is unlikely to pass, it raises the question of how a national standard for GMOs could affect Hawaii’s growing anti-GMO movement.

gmo signs

The GMO issue has sparked passionate debate in Hawaii.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

Pompeo’s proposal, which is supported by the biotechnology industry, would require labels for genetically engineered food if there is a “material difference” between the food and its non-GMO counterpart, “as necessary to protect health and safety or to prevent the label or labeling of such food from being false or misleading.”

Because national regulatory organizations like the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that genetically modified food is no more harmful than non-GMO food, it’s unlikely the bill would actually result in labeling.

The measure would also ban any state or local government from enacting GMO-related laws, such as the GMO labeling law that Vermont established last month.

Critics liken the bill to attempts by legislatures around the country to preempt county GMO regulations. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, called it an “assault on democracy.”

At least half of Hawaii’s congressional delegation — Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — oppose the measure. (Rep. Colleen Hanabusa wasn’t available for comment. Sen. Mazie Hirono declined to state a position on the proposal, although she said, “Those who wish to avoid eating GE foods should have options that allow them to do so.”)

Gabbard criticized the bill Tuesday for allowing food labeled as “natural” to contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Last year, Gabbard co-sponsored H.R. 1699, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, which would have mandated labels on genetically modified food but has since stalled in committee.

“We must be serious about equipping people with honest, transparent information about the food that they eat, and not settle for anything less than the straightforward mandate of labeling GE foods,” she said in a statement.

Locally, the measure has the backing of many farmers and ranchers, including members of Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United, Hawaii Crop Improvement Association and Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council.

“If states are allowed to pass their own individual laws, it will create an inconsistent and confusing patchwork of regulations across the country,” said Kirby Kester, president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents corporations like Monsanto Company and Dow Agrosciences.

Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety says although he opposes the bill, he’s not too worried about it. It has just a 4 percent chance of being enacted, according to the government transparency website, which allows people to keep tabs on the progress of bills.

Even if it were successful, Hawaii residents on both sides of the issue say a national GMO labeling standard would do little to calm the growing local movement against biotechnology in farming.

Nomi Carmona, president of Babes Against Biotech, one of several grassroots organizations founded in Hawaii in recent years to lobby on the issue, anticipates that a national preemption law would generate an uproar among the many anti-GMO supporters in Hawaii who have successfully advocated for regulations on Kauai and the Big Island.

Alan Gottlieb from the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council said although he supports H.R. 4432, he’s under no illusions that passing federal legislation would quell the uprising against genetically modified farming throughout the islands.

“If people are starting to create a lot of fear, they will continue to do that,” he said, adding the key is to have more education and outreach to the public about what GMOs are and how food is produced. “It is just going to boil over at some point in time.”

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