Consumers everywhere, rejoice! After a two-decade struggle against the powers-that-be, consumer groups and a handful of committed countries have succeeded this week in having the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international body created in 1963 by FAO and WHO, adopt the labeling of genetically modified (GM) food. The decision by over 100 countries was confirmed this week at the annual Codex summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit has been largely attributed to the ceaseless efforts of Consumers International, a UK-based non-profit with a 220+-member-organization-strong global network.
What does this announcement amount to? From now on, any country is free to adopt GM-foods labeling without running afoul of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) “restraint of trade” rules. An immediate impact, for instance, is that Peru, whose Consumer Code made GMO-labeling mandatory within its borders as of April 2010, is now free of any threat of a legal challenge from the WTO.
Let’s note that the text does not intend to uphold the consumers’ right to know what’s in the food they consume, but rests rather on the need to allow governments’ “post-market monitoring” of the effects of GM organisms on public health. This distinction is important since that’s what paved the way for the United States to finally drop its long-held opposition to the global GM-labeling guidelines. What it means, in practice, is that any national legislation or regulation on GM labeling must necessarily refer to the “scientific uncertainty of risks” and consequent need for surveillance, and not stand on consumers’ rights.
“The adopted text confirms that Codex labeling texts developed for foods generally also apply to foods derived from modern biotechnology,” an Obama Administration official said according to The Hill, adding that “this adopted text clarifies that foods derived from modern biotechnology are not necessarily different from other foods simply due to their method of production” (a direct reference to the sentence on which the United States hinged its final support).
The new Codex Alimentarius guidelines open the door to voluntary GM labeling, which some critics argue is a far cry from a mandatory system–the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica and Australia blocked that initiative at the Codex Committee on Food Labelling’s (CCFL) 39th session held in Quebec City, Canada, last May; click here for more background info on the drawn-out negotiation process.
Nevertheless, the new text certainly constitutes a step in the right direction. It is now up to consumers everywhere to mobilize and demand GM labeling of their governments. The door is wide open.