US President Barack Obama [official profile] signed Senate Bill No. 764 [bill, PDF] into law on Friday, which requires labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products under a single national standard. The law requires the Department of Agriculture (USDA) [official website] to write the rules for a “national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard” no later than two years after the signing of this bill into law. According to the bill, the disclosure may be in the form of a text, symbol, or electronic or digital ink. The USDA has also been directed to conduct a study to “identify potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bio-engineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods,” no later than one year after the enactment of this bill. The most important provision in this bill is perhaps contained in Section 293 (e) which states that:
Notwithstanding section 295, no State or political subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce any requirement relating to the labeling or disclosure of whether a food is bioengineered or was developed or produced using bioengineering for a food that is the subject of the national bioengineered food disclosure standard under this section that is not identical to the mandatory disclosure requirement under that standard.
This essentially means that any state which has enacted GMO labeling laws that are not identical to the federal standard will now be overridden. The passage of this law has sparked outrage [WP report] in the Vermont congressional delegation, which strongly objected to this law. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and Senator Patrick Leahy [official websites] especially pointed to the tougher Vermont laws on GMO product labeling. Among other things, opponents state that the federal labeling standards are too lax and do not carry tough penalties for failure to comply.
GMO labeling has been a cause for concern in the US. In February 2014 Obama signed into law [press release] a $956 billion farm bill [text, PDF] providing expanded crop insurance and other benefits for the agricultural sector and also requiring changes in food labeling. The recent prevalence of GMO crops has been a point of contention in courts around the world. In May 2014 Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill [JURIST report] requiring the labeling of food containing GMOs. In May 2013 the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously [JURIST report] in Bowman v. Monsanto [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that a farmer who buys patented seeds may not reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission, even though the seeds are altered to self-replicate. In March 2011 the European Court of Justice declared [JURIST report] that a ban on cultivating GMO crops is illegal after France attempted to prohibit the production of a strain of genetically modified maize developed by Monsanto in 2008. In December 2010 a US federal judge ordered the destruction [JURIST report] of a crop of genetically engineered sugar beets due to its potential harmful effect on surrounding flora.