Obama will (probably) not label GE foods

Last week, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. It was a monumental inauguration for many reasons. Never in the history of this country has a non-white man held this high office.Never before has the internet played such a huge role in the election, transition, and future administration of a president. And at least in my memory, I haven’t seen a president so prepared to hit the ground running in a crisis. The last two times a president decided to do something about a crisis, he first had to cancel his vacation!

There are a lot of things on his list, and executive orders are flying out of the Oval Office. Some believe that among his list of things to do is to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, but as I will demonstrate below, it is not on his list. First, a bit of background.

Obama has made his policy priorities public, and has made it a point to include people who both agree and disagree with him a part of his administration. Further channeling the memory of Abraham Lincoln, he even rode from Illinois to Washington D.C. on a train. The first 100 days are going to be a very exciting time in the realm of presidential politics.

President Obama has already vetted and selected several people to form his cabinet, which were announced late last year. No doubt the planning went back well into the election season, and his selection of Steven Chu as Energy Secretary gets high marks from me. Including Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State also raises an approving eyebrow. The process has been remarkably free of lobbying and special interests, but plenty of public attention.

There has been quite a bit of attention on his pick for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Probably more so than any previous Ag Secretary. Many people in this country are hungry for reforms in how we do agriculture, and following the Farm Bill Wars of 2007-2008, Vilsack comes at a time when Ag is in the spotlight.

The Claim

But Jeffrey Smith, anti-GE activist, is not taking Obama’s ag appointments sitting down, in an article titled Obama’s Team Includes Dangerous Biotech “Yes Men.” (repeated here) He criticizes Vilsack, although apparently before the nomination was announced – he seemed to think that Vilsack’s name was withdrawn. He points out that Obama’s transition team includes Michael Taylor, who was involved in some of the early regulation of GE crops, and Sharon Long, who was a scientific advisor to Obama’s campaign, and once worked for the biotech company Monsanto.

He also points out Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who authored a key study on GE crops for the National Academy of Sciences. Smith does not explain how Varmus is supposed to be a problematic pick as he did the other people in the list, so it seems all you have to be to be a Biotech “Yes Man” is be in favor of GE crops. (Even if you’re a woman, in the case of Long.)

But two statements of Smith’s seemed rather odd, the first is:

I don’t know Barack Obama’s position on GMOs.

You could say that we all don’t know Obama’s full position on GE crops, but you could also say that Smith didn’t do much research for his article.

ScienceDebate2008 sent a list of questions to then-candidates Obama and McCain, and here is Obama’s GE-focused response in full:

Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.

The article cited in Smith’s article, Obama, like Bush, may be ag biotech ally, bolsters the case that Obama is favorably disposed toward GE crops.

Obama’s official statements on development are “pretty strong on agricultural science,” said Robert Paarlberg, author of the recent book “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa.”

“I certainly haven’t seen any sense of opposition to technology.”

On to the second odd statement by Smith. It was put in BOLD so there’s no possibility of confusing the emphasis with his other, underlined emphases:

There is, however, one unambiguous and clear promise that separates Obama from his Bush and Clinton predecessors.

President Obama will require mandatory labeling of GMOs.

Really? When did he say that? Smith cited no reference, and given the above, it didn’t seem likely. So I decided to put on my skeptical thinking cap and trace this claim to its source.

Tracing the Claim:

After a few repeated searches, I found a few more folks saying the same thing. The OCA claims that Obama made a “campaign pledge,” promising mandatory labels for GMOs. Their source, however, is Jeffrey Smith again, at his website, responsibletechnology.org. This is where it gets a little weird. The link (above) provided by the OCA was a link to a petition for Obama to support the mandatory labeling of GE foods. Wait, if Obama has already promised to support mandatory labeling of GE foods, why the petition?

It gets better. NJ Jaeger, Smith’s communication representative, wrote a story a year ago claiming a bit more.

In late November, after reviewing the latest data about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also known as “biotech foods”, all leading democratic presidential candidates agreed to fast track the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Apparently, they, including Obama, all agreed not only to mandatory GE food labeling, but also to “fast-track” it – like you could expect them to get it done in their first 100 days or something.

But if you read Obama’s stated agenda at Change.gov, you will find no reference to GE food labeling, mandatory or not, nor for fast-tracking it either. There are quite a few other things in his Rural Agenda like tightening down on CAFOs and rebuilding rural infrastructure. No GE labeling promise there. (I have also not found anything from the Clinton or Edwards campaigns that use this language either.)

All references lead to Smith, so I contacted his organization. NJ Jaeger responded, saying that written support for mandatory labeling of GE foods was secured the previous fall by Craig Winters at TheCampaign.org – a site devoted to labeling foods derived through genetic engineering.

Not in the Agenda

After searching the site, I found only two references to the claim that Obama would push these labels. The first is a page on the campaign that just states that Obama, along with a few others, “supports mandatory labeling.”

The second is an article from early on in the primaries. The Democratic Candidates were asked about various rural issues, and genetic engineering was mentioned. According to the article, published on November 10, 2007 in the Des Moines Register,

He said he will stand up against conglomeration in the farm industry, and that he’s already working to support the packer ban, which would limit ownership of livestock by meatpacking companies.

Obama said he wants food labeled for its country of origin, and marked if it’s genetically modified. And he would push for renewable energy, by investing in biofuels, solar and wind.

Notice the difference between what is attributed to Obama in the article, and some of the items on his Rural Agenda:

  • Regulate CAFOs: Strictly regulate pollution from large factory livestock farms, with fines for those that violate tough standards. Support meaningful local control.
  • Establish Country of Origin Labeling: Implement Country of Origin Labeling so that American producers can distinguish their products from imported ones.
  • Encourage Organic and Local Agriculture: Help organic farmers afford to certify their crops and reform crop insurance to not penalize organic farmers. Promote regional food systems.
  • Promote Leadership in Renewable Energy: Ensure that our rural areas continue their leadership in the renewable fuels movement.

Meat, check. Country of Origin, check. Local Agriculture, check. Biofuels, check. GE food labeling, absent. I tried to get in touch with the author of the article to see if they had more details in the form of notes, audio or video clips, but I have not received a response at all.

I did manage to get in contact with Craig Winters, and he confirmed that the Des Moines Register article was the source for the claim that Barack Obama ‘promised’ to label GE foods. Unless I hear back from the author of the Register article, the only evidence we have is a sentence that states that he “wants” GE crops labeled, which is not a promise for mandatory labeling.

According to this YouTube video, he also thinks we should decriminalize marijuana. As much as I might hope that he would make some effort in this area during his presidency, he has not made it a part of his platform or agenda, and I do not expect that he will do it.

Craig was not aware of the positive statements Obama has made about genetic engineering, and he was doubtful about Obama’s true position, hoping that Obama could be convinced to oppose genetically engineered crops. He also told me that he has not received any written statements from, nor had any contact with Barack Obama’s election campaign on the issue. It’s beginning to unravel.

From the text of the TheCampaign.org site, however, it implies that they have gotten a response from Obama’s campaign, so I can understand where Smith et al may have misunderstood it. The site does not state that Obama promised anything, although from talking to Craig it appears he took the sentence in the Des Moines Register article as a promise.

So I contacted NJ Jaeger again. Now that NJ had the article to look at, the response was:

In the article [Obama said he wants food labeled for its country of origin, and marked if it's genetically modified.] He also said [ “We’ll take action on a rural agenda in my first 100 days in office,” } That is a pretty powerful fast track statement.

President Obama is a smart cookie, and his oratory skills and communication abilities are virtually unmatched. I believe that if Obama made a campaign promise to label GE crops, it would indeed be a clear, unambiguous pledge. And it would be in more places than a single article, it would be on his agenda, and there would be consistent campaign statements. NJ seems convinced that this article still supports their claims. Take a second look.

Obama told the farmers that as soon as he takes office, he would hold a summit on rural issues in Iowa, bringing Democrats and Republicans together.

“We’ll take action on a rural agenda in my first 100 days in office,” he said.

He pledged to put the people’s interests ahead of the special interests.

“That’s why Washington insiders matter when they’re in Washington County, Iowa, not Washington, D.C.” said Obama, who was flanked by four Secret Service agents.

He said he will stand up against conglomeration in the farm industry, and that he’s already working to support the packer ban, which would limit ownership of livestock by meatpacking companies.

Obama said he wants food labeled for its country of origin, and marked if it’s genetically modified. And he would push for renewable energy, by investing in biofuels, solar and wind.

Notice that the statement that he ‘wants’ GE foods labeled does not indicate a promise. Notice that the “rural agenda” statement in reference to 100 days was separate. In fact, Obama did make a fast-track promise on a rural agenda, but his published agenda does not include GE food labels. You cannot honestly twist this article to reach the conclusion that Jaeger and Smith have.

At the time that he wrote his article, Jaeger was not aware of the Des Moines Register article, which was the de facto source of the claim. When I asked what the “fast-tracking” part of her article was based on when he wrote it, she said:

The information I had at that time was that all leading democratic presidential candidates had been approached and it was a priority for them.

You can easily see that not exercising a degree of skepticism, or doing the necessary fact-checking that comes with responsible journalism, combined with incomplete communication and wishful thinking is the basis for this claim. In light of this, Jeffrey Smith and all others who have repeated the claim that Barack Obama promised to label GE crops should retract their statements. But I won’t hold my breath.

Reconciling statements

How can we reconcile his statement regarding GE crop labeling early in the primaries with his agenda? He could certainly have changed his mind. Think about this: when focusing on an issue that ties together climate change, national security, energy policy, and agriculture, he settled on plant-based biofuels as a major issue. Some advances in genetic engineering may make biofuel production more efficient and environmentally friendly. Another development that is nearing the market are crops that use half the fertilizer, which could drastically cut the energy requirements of farming.

As I remember from the presidential debate that focused on the economy, he may need to choose a few plans from his stated agenda to cut for revenue reasons. He would be even less likely to add an extra cost that is not even on his agenda.

Added cost in a troubled economy, no tangible consumer benefit, and the fact that if there’s an added cost consumer support for labeling evaporates – may have persuaded Obama that it was not an important enough issue for him to take up. Additionally, the general desire to prevent a “Brain Drain” of experts to other countries, and to stay ahead of technological developments worldwide may also contribute to his decision. Even if it these points weren’t mind-changers during the election, they may dissuade him from pursuing GE food labels while in office.

And on that note, his generally favorable disposition toward GE crops may be an indicator that he may not want to pursue mandatory GE food labels. The two correlate, but I would like to note that being pro-GE does not necessarily translate to being anti-label. But that’s a post for another day.

Politicking?

On the other hand, the issue may not have been important to him from the start. According to this article, Obama was the only Democratic candidate to not respond to a request for a position on GE food labeling, less than a month before the Des Moines article was written. He may have wanted to avoid setting himself apart from his colleagues on this issue, and so tried adding it to his prepared speech, to try it on for size, but it has not been seen since.

What if Barack Obama did indicate that he did want to label GE crops during the primaries to try not to let his opponents get an edge over him in a close race, but did not plan to make it part of his platform? In that case he was being a politician. But the reverse, which anti-GE activists are counting on, is that he fully intends to fast-track GE food labeling, but didn’t want to make it a stated position on his platform, which instead makes him… a politician. But one version of this politician has the weight of evidence, and the other, wishful thinking.

Conclusion:

I realize that this wild goose chase has become a long post, so here’s a bullet-point summary of my findings:

  • If anything, President Barack Obama appears to be warmly in favor of genetic engineering, although there is some wiggle room with his campaign statements.
  • President Obama’s picks for Ag Secretary, campaign advisers, and other cabinet positions further suggest that he is positively disposed to GE crops. Given his emphasis on plant-based biofuels, he may also see it as a means to achieve his domestic renewable fuel goals.
  • Obama did not make a written campaign statement promising to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.
  • Obama did not respond to mailings from The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, nor did his presidential campaign contact them.
  • Obama’s declared agenda, now housed at the White House website, indicates that these labels are not on his agenda.
  • The claim that he will “fast track” GE food labeling appears to be an invention or the result of miscommunication.
  • President Obama only once expressed a desire for GE food labeling, but has not made a campaign promise or pledge that he will “require mandatory labeling” for GE food.

Maybe he will push for labeling. Maybe when he comes out of his Rural Agenda summit, the Obama Administration will announce that mandatory labeling for GE foods will be enforced within one year. That is still possible, which is why I say that Obama probably will not label GE foods. However one thing is clear and unambiguous: There is no evidence that Barack Obama ever made a statement strong enough to be considered as a campaign promise to label GE foods. He’s got a lot to work on cleaning up the mess that this country is in, and the last thing that President Obama needs are false claims of campaign promises that he never made.

It is important that the political discussions surrounding this historic presidency be honest and accurate. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said,

A lie cannot live.

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Karl is a Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison. In addition to his research on the genetics of sweet corn, he is also completing a minor in science communication and is working on several media projects about plant breeding. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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