The Senate voted overwhelmingly -- 71 to 27 -- against an amendment to the sweeping farm bill, squashing a measure that would not have required labeling of genetically modified organisms, but merely would have let states decide if they wanted to require such labeling.
"The concept we're talking about today is a fairly commonsense and non-radical idea," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the sponsor of the amendment, said shortly before the vote. "All over the world, in the European Union, in many other countries around the world, dozens and dozens of countries, people are able to look at the food that they are buying and determine through labeling whether or not that product contains genetically modified organisms."
Sanders has noted that more than 3,000 ingredients are required to be labeled, but genetically modified ingredients are not part of that list. His state and Connecticut have passed laws to require such labeling, but Sanders said local leaders fear that large biotech corporations such as Monsanto could sue the states on the grounds that they are preempting federal authority. He said his bill would make clear that states can do what they want on the issue.
But Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chair of the Agriculture Committee, argued that the measure "is not germane to the farm bill" in the first place. She also said the labels run counter to science and the public interest in healthy food.
"This particular amendment would interfere with the FDA's science-based process to determine what food labeling is necessary for consumers," Stabenow said.
"It's also important to note that around the world now we are seeing genetically modified crops that have the ability to resist crop diseases and improve nutritional content and survive drought conditions in many developing countries," she added. "We see wonderful work being done by foundations like the Gates Foundation and others, that are using new techniques to be able to feed hungry people," she said, although it was not clear how labeling would affect such efforts.
Sanders' office pointed out that 64 countries around the world require GMO labeling.
"I believe we must rely on the FDA's science-based examination before we make conclusions about food ingredients derived from genetically modified foods," Stabenow said. "They currently do not require special labeling because they've determined that food content of these ingredients does not materially differ from their conventional counterparts."
While Stabenow seemed assured of the safety of genetically modified food, there is in fact significant debate about whether or not it will prove safe in the long run. There are also growing concerns about the environmental impacts.
The lack of labeling also makes it much harder for consumers who oppose GMOs -- whether they think they are healthy or not -- from voting against them in the marketplace. Most of the processed food on U.S. store shelves contains genetically modified ingredients, including corn and soybeans.
Sanders put forth a similar amendment last year, but it was voted down as well. He promised on Thursday to keep trying. "The people of Vermont and the people of America have a right to know what's in the food that they eat,” he said in a statement after the vote.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post.