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Achieving our mission: taking the long view on GMO labeling and organic

AlertOn June 27, 2016, OTA's CEO and Board President sent the following message to the membership regarding the federal GMO labeling bill introduced by Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow. 

Dear OTA Members,

In the craziness that is the nation’s capital this summer, navigating legislative action to promote and protect organic has never been tougher, but that is the mission of your Organic Trade Association.

As tensions mounted leading up to the July 1st deadline for Vermont’s labeling laws to go into effect, another attempt at a national compromise became inevitable. A backdrop to those negotiations saw a ratcheting up of attacks on organic from Congress and, unfortunately, were not limited to proposals that failed to protect organic in a GMO labeling construct. OTA has spent significant time and resources countering Senate efforts to thwart the industry-consumer consensus based process for setting organic standards by halting the proposed animal welfare standards for organic from becoming final. This would be a major blow to the meaning of the organic seal and our unique public private partnership.

For years, OTA has supported efforts to bring federal mandatory GMO labeling to the United States. Conventional agriculture, the biotech community, and a host of food companies have fought hard to defeat labeling, and have spent millions of dollars doing so.

Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow recently, as anticipated, reached an agreement on this tough issue and introduced a federal labeling bill that not only requires disclosure of GMO ingredients, but also includes important provisions for organic farmers and food makers – and for the millions of consumers who choose organic every day – because they recognize, unequivocally, that USDA Certified Organic products qualify for non-GMO claims in the marketplace and do not have to take any extra efforts to avoid labeling. 
OTA’s Organic = Non GMO+ member task force demonstrated a clear priority on reinforcing organic and organic foods above labeling conventional food as either GMO or non-GMO. Those provisions safeguard USDA certified organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status. They importantly protect the ability of the organic standards process to set its own definition of biotechnology which meet consumers’ expectation for prohibiting GMO’s in organic. Without question, this is a big win for the organic industry.
This legislation isn’t nearly perfect. Some critics say it is a victory for big agriculture and big corporate interests. We understand how some may be fundamentally dissatisfied with this compromise solution, especially as it includes an option to reveal the presence of GMOs through technology that would require a smartphone and internet access. OTA doesn’t like that option, and we are urging all companies, faced with the choice of how to disclose GMO ingredients, to choose to print a simple and clear statement of GMO content on the product label. This is the most effective and transparent way to communicate with consumers. We know that consumers look at their labels. Don’t choose a label with a “QR” Code.

While not perfect, this bill covers thousands more products than Vermont’s GMO labeling law and other state initiatives. It will not allow products that are exempt from informing consumers about their GMO content to automatically slap on a non-GMO claim. And it makes a huge advance in recognizing and safeguarding USDA certified organic as the gold standard for transparency and non-GMO status.

So, what was specifically at risk for organic?

  • The risk of conventional products, exempted from labeling in Vermont or federally, carrying a bogus, misleading and meaningless non-GMO claim in the marketplace. Think conventional milk labeled non-GMO at a rock bottom price point because livestock feed is exempted. Livestock feed is a huge proportion of GMO production.
  • The risk of any products containing meat as a minor ingredient from doing the same
  • The clear risk of organic products being unable to make a legal non-GMO claim in the market due to current conflicting policies from FDA and USDA.
  • The risk of narrowly defining biotechnology so that the National Organic Program’s ability to define GMOs as excluded methods broadly and inclusive of new technologies like gene editing and gene deletion would also be limited.

A compromise GMO labeling bill was happening, with or without us. Not protecting the core value of the organic label would have been risky and wrong for an association whose critical mission is to protect the value of organic. Many reading this know it is impossible to measure what could have been, but we were simply not willing to take that risk. Each of these risks were mitigated in the proposed statute, and thus OTA appreciates Senator Stabenow for championing the USDA Organic seal, and for protecting organic as the original assurance of non-GMO ingredients and more, while crafting a mandatory federal solution to the challenging and controversial debate on GMO labeling and consumer transparency.
Organic is the best, original and most important claim in the marketplace. Keeping organic strong as the alternative is our top priority.
Our mission is to protect organic agriculture and trade, and we have to take the long view to achieve that mission. Any federal legislation is an attempt to solve a complex issue. The bill still has some pitfalls, as is true with all compromise, and hurdles to overcome before it becomes law. But our mission is to advocate for organic at every step along the way. If the legislation becomes law, at least we know organic will be protected in the process.

When faced with tough deliberations, we look to our mission and policies. We are confident that this bill protects organic in the marketplace. It reinforces organic as the original non-GMO market claim, and assures consumers that USDA Organic is the simplest and surest way to guarantee no GMOs, no toxic pesticides, and so much more.

This is an important protection for organic, and one that allows us to continue focusing on promoting and growing the organic market, converting more acres to organic, and focusing our efforts on advocating for organic in the next Farm Bill and beyond.

Protecting organic. Promoting organic. Our mission.


Laura Batcha 
CEO/Executive Director, Organic Trade Association

Melissa Hughes
OTA Board President
General Counsel & Director of Government Relations, Organic Valley 


Read OTA's Position on GMOs               Learn more about GMO labeling