GMO Food

Why a Bad GMO Law Makes Good GMO Regulations Impossible

The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act is a bad law, and bad laws make good regulations nearly impossible


Photo illustration credit: WLADIMIR BULGAR/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Newscom

The U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this week finally released long awaited proposed rules for labeling genetically modified foods, or GMOs. But for the last year or so, it seemed like these rules would never come up for public discussion.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced last month that the agency would likely miss the July deadline for introducing the final rules mandated under a controversial 2016 law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act.

Nearly a year ago, USDA Senior Policy Analyst Andrea Huberty forecasted this problem. "We're still on track, but a little behind," she said. Soon after Huberty's remarks, food-industry groups warned the Office of Management (OMB) "that failing to implement federal GMO labeling legislation in a timely manner could cause major headaches for the food industry." The groups pegged OMB as the potential roadblock, and Purdue has said the OMB is to blame for the slow pace.

But the real reason the rules have taken so long is because the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act is a bad law, and likely unworkable.

Two features of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act are particularly troubling. First, the law leaves room for "other factors and conditions" that would trigger mandatory GMO labeling. That vague language is sure to sow confusion and, likely, litigation for years to come.

The law also allows food marketers to declare GMO content via "text, symbol, or electronic or digital link." That leaves open the possibility that labels could declare GMO content using anything from words to graphics to QR codes—the latter referring to the boxed, coded graphics that invite consumers to scan them with a mobile device to learn just what the hell the code means. (The codes, long thought dead, may be making an unwanted comeback.) Like the "other factors and conditions" language, the notification requirement also seems certain to sow confusion and spur litigation.

One good feature of the law is that prohibits states from implementing their own GMO-labeling laws. If that's all the law did, then it might be worth supporting.

Food-related regulations are delayed across the federal government. Earlier this year, for example, the USDA announced it would delay establishment of milk-marketing orders in California. Last year, the agency said it would delay implementing animal-welfare rules. The FDA delayed implementing its awful menu-labeling rules until now. These delays aren't unique to the Trump administration. Delays in shaping USDA and FDA rules were also common under the Obama administration, which was sued in 2012 over FDA delays in implementing the terrible Food Safety Modernization Act.

Some of those who will be impacted by the proposed GMO-labeling rules are already criticizing them.

The Alliance for Biotech Facts, which represents thousands of farmers, producers, and food manufacturers, issued a statement this week, shortly after the proposed rules were released, arguing that "a government mandated label singling out [some foods that contain no genetic material] would wrongly signal to consumers that there is something different or unusual about these products."

One key lesson, then, is that Congress's proclivity to pass poorly thought out and vague food laws—and to leave it to the USDA and FDA to iron out the key details in a timely fashion—is a recipe for disaster.

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  1. I’m seeing lots of products voluntarily labelled “non-GMO.” So why is GMO labelling required? Any reasonable person would assume that, in absence of bragging about non-GMO, that the product does or may have GMO elements. This way, those bragging are the ones facing lawsuits if they are alleged to be lying.

    1. “So why is GMO labelling required?”

      Given a choice between these options…

      1. People are allowed to deal with the issue as they like with no government involvement.

      2. Rules and regulations (and fines and punishments) are developed and enforced by the government.

      … which do you think regulators will choose?

      1. *Rubs hands together while drooling* Punishments….yes we must have punishments.

        1. And after that, the oral sex.

      2. There is a lot of grass roots pressure for labeling too. They want a warning label with a skull and crossbones. If there’s no evidence to support that finding, that just proves the fake-science cover up is real.

        In other words… “a government mandated label … would wrongly signal to consumers that there is something [dangerous] about these products.”

        1. As opposed to the safe stuff in the government’s food pyramid?

        2. If it were a widespread grass roots movement, then consumers could vote with their wallets by buying only foods that declare themselves to be non-GMO. Food production is relatively free market.

          But it’s not; it’s a small but vocal minority of Luddites who want to scare people away from GMO. So they need the government to help them.

        3. There is little to no “grass roots” pressure. There is, however, a powerful special interest of “organic” farmers and others who will benefit financially from the labeling mandate and a small but vocal group of Lenin’s “useful idiots” who take their claims at face value without the slightest understanding of what DNA is or how it works.

  2. GMO threads always bring out the luddite visits. It’s Saturday, so it’ll probably take a while.

  3. Food-related regulations are delayed across the federal government.

    That’s the attempt to reduce obesity. Govt is recognizing that they’ve made people fat. So by delaying the regs, they know that people won’t eat until the regs get issued.

  4. ” First, the law leaves room for “other factors and conditions” that would trigger mandatory GMO labeling. ”

    Let me guess. This is a cover-all to cover other things that the luddites and tree-huggers object to. If it has been irradiated by ionizing radiation, it is GMO food.

    If it is fish meat, and the fish have been nibbling at floating dead whales, and there’s traces of whale DNA, it is GMO, for fear we might be eating hidden traces of whale meat. (WTF on that one anyway? Whale meat is renewable, right?)

    If it is bush meat, it is GMO.


    1. Actually, just about everything humans eat and drink, with the exceptions of salt and water, has been genetically modified. A goodly part of the world’s diet is basically genetically-improved grass seed.

      “Non-GMO” labels mean “It hasn’t changed much since grandpa was a kid.”

      1. There is a big difference between selective breeding which enhances certain characteristics of a food,that is already ther and gene splicing. Say putting a mouse gene in corn to protect it from rodent feeding. If you want “gene spliced food” instead of “GMO” that works for me too, just label and let the consumer decide. That is the way it should work.

        1. Gee, it took a while for a luddite to show up.
          “just label and let the consumer decide.”
          You already can. Can’t figure it out? Don’t eat it.


          Right next to the warning label on organic fruits and veggies: “THIS FOOD ITEM MAY HAVE HAD BUGS CRAWLING ALL OVER IT BEFORE IT WAS PICKED”

          Then, as you say, let the consumer decide.

          Oh, you think those labels are unfair? They are completely correct descriptions of non-GMO and organic products. Sure, they portray them in a disgusting light, but that’s exactly what you and your luddite friends have been doing to GMO for 40 years.

        3. Yes, there is a big difference between:

          A) Deliberately blasting seeds with artificial ionizing radiation and/or chemical mutagens to break apart chromosomes and have them reform in random ways, seeing if any of the resulting new genes produced by the process seem to have beneficial effects, and breeding them into the food supply, and

          B) Selecting a single gene for its known characteristics, inserting it into a plant, and then passing a combined series of USDA, EPA, and FDA tests to be allowed to take it to market.

          The question is, given that difference, why would anyone think the latter is what consumers need labels to indicate?

          Seriously, every single major food crop in the world has been subjected to the process detailed in A, for decades. If you’re not spending the time, effort, and money to confine yourself to food made from scratch from pre-1950s heirloom varietals, that’s how the “selective breeding” of the food you eat was done. Yes, that includes the foods labeled “organic” and “non-GMO”.

          But you don’t care, because there weren’t a bunch of loudmouth protesters in the 1950s denouncing it, and you’ve never bothered to become actually informed about the issues.

          1. “Yes, there is a big difference between:”
            Hard to believe, our brain-dead lefty troll posts something which is not idiotic.
            There is yet hope for mankind.

          2. Congress creates one big difference! For case B you must pay a fee to use last year’s crop to plant this and next years crop to some corporation that does zero for you, but just imposes a private tax on your efforts authorized by Congress.

        4. You’re right, there IS a big difference: The gene splicing is better controlled.

        5. re: “There is a big difference between…”

          No, there isn’t. Viruses have been randomly transporting gene fragments back and forth across species, phyla and even kingdoms practically since life began. And the fact that you don’t already know that says you don’t have the basic scientific knowledge and background to have a place in the conversation.

  5. Headlines like this are damaging to libertarianism

    “Why a Bad GMO Law Makes Good GMO Regulations Impossible”

    So a casual observer might naturally believe all libertarians want is “smarter” regulation whatever that is.

    1. “Non-GMO Food” labels must be approved by Luddite International.

      Then serve GMO popcorn while they eat their own.


    Right next to the warning label on organic fruits and veggies: “THIS FOOD ITEM MAY HAVE HAD BUGS CRAWLING ALL OVER IT BEFORE IT WAS PICKED”

  7. I’d like a label on the “organic” food, something along the lines of, “The other stuff is made of carbon compounds, too. So there!”

    Seriously, I stick to the ceramic veggies, no organics for me.

    1. “I’d like a label on the “organic” food, something along the lines of, “The other stuff is made of carbon compounds, too. So there!”

      “This stuff is as nutritious and tasty as the stuff right over there without some bogus ORGANIC label”
      The local Whole Foods does label the grass-finished (they call it ‘grass-fed’) beef, so we know what to avoid if we want flavor.
      Not a lot of sugars in grass, and fat = flavor!

  8. The bad law is allowing patents on plants and animals so big corporate rent seekers can demand high fees from farmers from doing what farmers have done for 50,000 years.

    If I buy GMO seed or animals, I should get to use it to produce new seed or animals cross bred for my farm without paying anything more beyond buying the seed or animal.

    1. Why?

      Say that you’re a small farmer. You devote 20 years of your life to breeding a better sheepdog. Smarter, faster, more useful in every way. Kind and gentle with the kids, too. You deserve something for your hard work so you decide to sell the puppies. Are you saying that it’s somehow immoral to have them spayed before you sell them?

      Why should the farmer down the street get all the benefit of your hard work and investment for free? Switch the example to grain. Why should you be forbidden from including a clause in the contract saying that your neighbor can’t replant your seed? It’s not like you have a complete monopoly on grain – you just have small, time-limited patent on your special type of seed. The one you actually worked on and invented. If people don’t like your contract limitation, they are free to buy and plant the plain old grain that granddad planted (and to get the same low yields that granddad did).

      And if you are forbidden from including that clause in your contract, what do you think you’ll do as the farmer to make back your investment? You’ll still sell it but since you can’t recoup your investment over time, you’ll have to charge an outrageous amount at the point of that first sale. Which means no one will buy it which means that no one gets the benefit of your amazing invention.

      1. (con’t)
        The truth is that farmers have been developing new seed and charging for it ever since the invention of money. You’re ranting about “corporations” in ignorance of how the business of farming has always taken place.

  9. The bottom paragraph says it all. The entire house of cards that is “administrative law” needs to be brought crashing down. Congress needs to pass laws. The Executive Branch needs to enforce them. Congress has neither the authority nor the constitutional power to delegate their legislative functions to the Executive Branch.

    Does that mean that Congress will have to get down in the weeds and really understand the laws that they are passing? Does it mean that they’ll be overworked and have to prioritize work on substantive laws over commendations and national insects? Does that mean incompetent legislators might get exposed rather than being able to blame faceless bureaucrats? Does it mean there might even be fewer laws and less regulation? I see those as features, not bugs.

  10. ‘One good feature of the law is that prohibits states from implementing their own GMO-labeling laws. If that’s all the law did, then it might be worth supporting.’

    Forbidding states from devising their own labeling standards seems very draconian. What’s the rationale for tossing federalism and states’ rights out the window on this point as opposed to others? A cynic would say you’re being opportunistic here rather than principled.

    The status of a food as GMO is irrelevant though, the problem is the high quantities of herbicides (something that some GMOs allow, but not necessarily so) American agriculture makes use of that.

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