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Analysis: Senate blocks bill to make GMO labeling voluntary

Despite community advocates' victory, the lesson from this fight must be that the challenges our food system faces are much larger than any individual policy.
Labels on bags of snack foods indicate they are non-GMO food products, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
Labels on bags of snack foods indicate they are non-GMO food products, in Los Angeles, Calif.

The Senate narrowly voted down controversial legislation on Wednesday afternoon that would make labeling of genetically engineered foods voluntary while preempting states’ abilities to pass more stringent transparency measures. Advocates for mandatory labeling are celebrating this victory and preparing for a vote on an alternative measure that leans towards their interests.

This new development follows an intense but unsuccessful period of negotiations during which advocates from all sides worked to achieve a compromise solution designed to meet food producers’ needs and consumers’ demand for greater transparency. Ultimately, that fleeting compromise is likely to be the basis of legislation the Senate will turn to in the weeks ahead. 

Though critically important, the intense focus around this single issue for 15 years has taken considerable resources and significant attention — all while a host of other policies with equally profound implications for human health and food system sustainability have stagnated. Despite community advocates' Senate victory, the lesson from this fight must be that the challenges our food system faces are much larger than any individual policy. We can no longer fight for good food one policy at a time.

OPINION: How sustainability should shape the American diet

America needs a comprehensive set of "Good Food" policies — one that mobilizes billions of dollars of private capital dedicated to building a food system that supports the health of American communities, the sustainability of our agricultural system and the equity of consumers. Creating such a system is possible, but it will require a dramatic shift in thinking and courageous policy-making.  

Since World War II, America has built an industrial food system dedicated to the production of low-cost food. We succeeded, but at great cost. We have dramatically decreased the cost of calorie production while creating a system that often exploits workers, does too little to encourage sustainable agricultural practices, and increasingly concentrates market share. In 2010, 53 percent of U.S. grocery sales went to just four companies, while fewer Americans farmed profitably than ever before. Meanwhile, some 40 percent of the food we grow goes to waste even as 7 million households regularly go hungry.

Thankfully, American consumers are beginning to drive important changes within our food system. Increasingly, they want to "know their farmers." They want humanely raised protein products free of antibiotics and growth hormones. They want fresh produce without harmful pesticides and food that wasn’t picked by an exploited worker or sent on a thousand-mile, nutrient-depleting journey.

As a result, health-conscious fast casual chains are winning market share from incumbents, and big food producers are looking to source cage-free eggs, deliver low-sodium products and more. The challenge now is to scale up sustainable and organic food production, both as an economic catalyst and as a means of improving the health of our communities and the environment. 

To help meet that challenge, our food policies need to shift to support new and better ways for our country to produce, buy and consume food. We need to make food production more local and diverse. We must also move quickly to use our food system to catalyze workforce development and better employment opportunities for low and middle-skilled individuals. Public policy should incentivize private sector participation in new farmer initiatives, reward permanent job creation and create a path to citizenship for farm workers who earn appropriate credentials — recognizing that more than three out of four U.S. crop workers are born outside the United States.

We also need to move more quickly to ensure our policy environment promotes farming practices that are healthy for both people and the natural environment. Crop production incentives in the Farm Bill could encourage small farms to transition to USDA Organic, and a USDA food waste reduction program could support markets for imperfect produce and promote food waste recycling.

RELATED: Why Congress is having a food fight over GMO labeling

Crucially, we need to ensure that every American community has access to nutritious, affordable food. We could, for example, enhance the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Initiative, designed to help low-income consumers purchase more fruits and vegetables. We could also create incentives for businesses that produce healthy food in so-called “food deserts” to sell at least 50 percent of it locally and employ a workforce that is at least 50 percent local — accomplishing multiple goals at once. We could even reduce 400,000 tons of food waste by taking advantage of bipartisan support for clearer date labeling on foods, feeding hungry American’s and reducing food imports along the way.

To achieve these outcomes, we need to develop a clear public policy strategy that unites a wide range of stakeholders.

The opportunity to implement such a strategy has arrived, thanks to emerging consumer demand. Policy makers should follow the lead of their constituents by designing incentives that turn this market demand into a national opportunity to sustainably generate more wealth and better health. At scale, sustainable food production could be an economic bonanza if we viewed our national food policy as a tool to drive growth and create economic opportunity for millions of Americans. Industry representatives, “Good Food” advocates, and the philanthropists and investors who support their work need to coalesce around a comprehensive food policy that supports Americans’ resolve to lead healthier, sustainable and more prosperous lives.    

Melody Barnes is the co-founder and principal of MBSquared Solutions LLC, a domestic policy strategy firm. She is a former assistant to President Obama and served as the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Eric Kessler is the founder and principal of Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting firm. Eric spearheads his firm’s Good Food Practice, which supports philanthropists and investors working to build a food system that generates delicious, nutritious, sustainably produced food that is accessible for all.