From Burlington, Vermont to New York City to Washington, DC:  Handicapping the GMO Chess Match

Chess ImageThe food industry squared off with the Vermont Attorney General in a federal appeals courtroom in New York City last week. The stakes were high as both sides have much to gain or lose when the federal panel of judges issues its ruling on industry’s motion for an injunction preventing Vermont’s law from going into effect July 1st while its larger court case challenging the law proceeds.

Conventional wisdom holds that if industry gets the injunction it seeks, it is the beginning of the end for the pro-GMO food labeling movement. A closer analysis shows a favorable ruling, while welcome news, will likely not be a definitive game-changer in the ongoing GMO chess match.

First, the ruling only covers industry’s request for an injunction, but the case proceeds and the courts must arrive at a final ruling as to whether Vermont’s labeling law will stand. That process will likely take several years and the outcome is uncertain.

While the wheels of justice turn, the contentious battle over GMO labeling will continue in the states and Washington, D.C. The pro-labeling crowd will continue its state legislative push and will likely qualify one or more state ballot initiatives in states like California, Washington or Oregon in November 2016.

In addition, industry will continue to seek passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act in Congress. The relatively easy work has been done, with a Republican-led, pro-industry House of Representatives passing the legislation earlier this year. Prospects for passage in the Senate before the November 2016 elections is far from certain, with a robust and politically charged Congressional agenda, an ongoing presidential election and largely dysfunctional majority in both chambers seen as reasonable obstacles to passage.

One scenario sees a quick victory for industry with a favorable ruling in Vermont or passage of its anti-labeling bill in Congress. Either one of those actions would essentially put an end to the pro-GMO labeling push.

A second scenario is more of the same – an expensive and protracted battle between the two sides, slugging it out state-by-state. The next shoe to drop could be Massachusetts, where pro-labeling forces appear to have enough votes to pass their GMO labeling bill by the end of the year. Each time proponents of GMO labeling pass a state law or ballot initiative it grows the pro-GMO labeling story line of the inevitability of GMO labeling.

Handicapping the odds of which scenario is the most likely is very difficult. Industry’s strategy is sound and it has deep pockets. However, there are a lot of moving parts buried within its approach that are beyond its control such as finicky judges and a largely dysfunctional Congress.

Anti-GMO advocates have time on their side, as they keep chipping away in the states and are seemingly one major victory away from getting what they want. One ballot initiative or passage of a GMO labeling bill in a large state like New York would send reverberations throughout the food value chain. However, their funding is a constant struggle and their ability to completely block federal legislation has fallen short.

In the middle are consumers. Industry is doing the right thing in its effort to preserve the ability to use GMO technology now and in the future. Perhaps the most important question they face is whether or not the GMO policy and legal debate is impacting their standing with those who matter most – shoppers.

That is why industry continues to explore digital information solutions to give consumers easy access to more information about their products at the point of sale. Via smart phone Apps, QR code technology and Web sites, industry is developing a transparency effort to provide shoppers with information on GMO ingredients, nutrition information, sustainability, food waste, animal welfare, country of origin and a host of other information at the touch of a button.

The GMO labeling debate is less battle and more chess match, with each side blunting the moves of its opponents and trying to stay on the offensive in an attempt to secure checkmate against its opponent. Determining which side will win is the difficult part. For the most part, the future of GMO labeling is in the hands of a handful of judges in Burlington, Vermont and New York City.

Sean McBride, Founder & Principal of DSM Strategic Communications, is former Executive Vice President of Communications and Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association