The battle over biotech food labeling heating up

The battle over biotech food labeling heating up

How to deal with biotech food labeling? AFBF-backed legislation making rounds in Congress.  

The battle over mandatory labeling of biotechnology-derived food has reached a boil.

“I’ve been asked to hit on a few points about farmers’ access to biotechnology,” said Andrew Walmsley, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Congressional Affairs liaison, during a July 16 call to the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s (MFBF) annual Summer Soybean, Corn, Wheat, and Feed Grain Grower Policy Meeting held at the Monsanto Learning Center in Scott. “We term it ‘biotechnology’ while opponents label it ‘GMOs’ so I may use that language interchangeably.

“We’ve seen a challenge over the last seven or eight years about this across the country. When I do a presentation on this I always try to go in with hat in hand and say, ‘You know what? I admit we’ve done a pretty poor job … speaking up and defending this technology -- not just from agriculture or the farmer side, but the tech companies to the grocery manufacturers and everyone in between.’

“Part of the problem is there are hard-working folks out there trying to produce something while there are people behind a keyboard trying to stir up trouble. They don’t do a whole lot else.”

Walmsley called this unwelcome development a “noise that has taken hold. We’re starting to see policy implications on account of that noise. Whether that’s an actual (biotech) county production ban in Oregon to 31 different states looking at some type of food labeling for biotechnology to Vermont, which just recently passed a standalone (labeling) bill  that’s set to become law.”

Due to the noise, he continued, there have been negative impacts “on regulatory predictability in Washington, D.C., on getting new traits to market. It’s really beginning to have an impact on competitiveness in U.S. agriculture.”

What is AFBF doing to counter the anti-biotech chatter?

One thing done in conjunction with biotech companies is the launch of www.GMOanswers.com. A web portal, the site allows a consumer to ask any question they want about biotechnology.

“It’s a very transparent process and it’s clear the site was put together by the biotech industry and supported by many commodity groups and Farm Bureau.

“So, ask your question and it’ll be answered by a third-party expert: an academic, a health professional, a farmer, or someone actually from (a biotech) company. There have been about 700 questions asked … and folks are staying on the site for about five minutes -- something that’s uncommon in the internet world.”

Also part of the pushback is Ketchum Communications, a company “that seeks out negative (biotech-related) tweets on Twitter. We started that earlier this year. They’ll monitor for negative tweets and then ask (the author) to check out GMOanswers. … Since we launched that there’s been about an 80 percent reduction in negative Twitter traffic as it relates to GMOs.”

Another component is in dealing with the press. This, said Walmsley, is not just for “Farm Press or more friendly publications but The New York Times, Huffington Post, Grist and more liberal publications not telling our side. Along with the U.S. Farmer and Rancher Alliance, which Farm Bureau is a member of, we went to them to present the facts and start telling our story. Since then, we’ve seen a real shift in that reporting -- our side is at least being presented and we see that as a positive.”

Yet another component is legislation introduced in April by Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas and North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield. Legislation has already been introduced that would require mandatory labeling.

“We’re opposed to mandatory labeling because it’s a target and our opponents have made it clear they want a government label on food products derived from GMO technology. They can go after that and force the technology away from us.”

Walmsley likened this to the “camel’s noise under the tent. GMOs today but what type of pesticide will you use tomorrow? They’ll take those tools away from you, too.

“So, to hopefully provide an opportunity for the grassroots, farmer members and those who care about the technology to have something positive to say, we thought it was important to put together that piece of legislation together. I’ll tell you it isn’t perfect. But it is an alternative and something that can speak against (anti-GMO bills).”

Four points

The bipartisan legislation would basically do four things:

  • Mandatory review for new traits and technologies at the FDA.

“Currently any new trait that comes to market goes through a risk assessment at USDA. If there’s a pesticidal mode of action it goes to the EPA.

“All companies, up to this point, for anything that will be used for feed and food have voluntarily gone to the FDA. The FDA can say ‘there are no health or safety concerns. There are no allergen concerns. Compositionally this product is no different than its conventional counterpart.’

“We’re looking to strengthen that oversight at FDA to alleviate consumer concerns. We hope we’ve crafted it in a way that lessens the likelihood of legal challenge from our opponents.”

  • Would create a framework for voluntary labeling.

“America is about the free market and capitalism and we have no issues with any of that. If someone wants to voluntarily label, that’s their right. But we want a framework so consumers know what they’re getting with the label.

“If a consumer doesn’t want to eat GMOs, they can seek out USDA-certified organic or the Non-GMO Project...

“As the foremost food safety agency, the FDA is the appropriate place to develop needed guidelines.”

  • The term “natural.”

“This is important because there are grocery manufacturers being sued over the term ‘natural.’ We aren’t trying to define GMOs as ‘natural’ but the (grocery manufacturers) felt it was an important part of the legislation.”

  • Uniform standards.

“A patchwork of state regulations doesn’t benefit anyone. It would be hard to implement within our agricultural system. We don’t source bulk commodities that way.

“The (mandatory GMO labeling) ballot initiative in California that was ultimately defeated after $44 million was spent showed that increased food costs for a family of four would be an extra $400 annually. A similar study by Cornell University in New York found it would cost a family $500 more per year. If folks were forced towards a more organic shopping list, it would cost them $1,500 more per year. So, there’s a real economic impact especially for those who are food insecurity.”

What about the timeline and expectations for the legislation?

“Right now, it’s crazy season until (November) elections. Y’all are very aware of that in Mississippi. We’re still working on co-sponsors and right now have about 30. A lot of meetings I go into are very positive, even on the Democratic side of the aisle -- ‘We understand it. We’re with you and we understand the science. But, you know, it’s a bit too hot to put my name on right now.’…

“We know this will be a long process and there will be tweaks. But we’re looking for vocal support of the idea of the bill and want input. We needed to start at some point and there’s benefit to public hearings to get past some of the noise of ballot initiatives … and restore some order in the halls of Congress regarding the subject.”

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