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GMO: Label or no?

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 11/26/2013 7:58 AM

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MINNEAPOLIS -- On the same day that Washington voters headed to the polls to reject a GMO labeling law, a panel debated the issue at the Agri-Growth Council annual meeting.

The panel was supposed to address the future of biotechnology, but instead, most of the debate focused on GMO acceptance and labeling.

The majority of U.S. farmers have embraced biotech, with 90 percent of the soybeans and 75 percent of the corn grown in the country genetically modified.

Cookies, crackers, indeed most of the processed food consumed in the United States, contain genetically modified corn or soybeans.

Yet, many consumers don't understand the issue.

The terminology is scary to consumers, said Ruth S. MacDonald, a professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.

There is something sacred about the food people eat, said Louis Finkel, executive vice president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The moment the conversation becomes about science and food, people become uncomfortable, he said.

People don't have a problem with technology in their phones, MacDonald said. Food is different.

When GMOs were introduced in 1997, it was called Franken food, said Mike Yost, farmer and owner of Yost Farm Inc.

"I'm trying to do what you want," he said, by bringing safe, abundant, affordable food to consumers by using less pesticides, less fuel and reduced tillage.

MacDonald said the critics of GMOs were the first to shape public opinion and that has lingered. On the other hand, scientists say "trust us." That doesn't go over well when anyone can go on the Internet and read stories about GMOs that will scare them to death.

Finding support

Supporters of GMOs were blindsided by the criticism, Finkel said, because there was no safety issue in their minds. It only was after activists brought forward their web of lies and deceit that the issue arose, he said.

There has been a lot of pushback because consumers are suspicious. If companies aren't forthcoming with information, they must have something to hide, said Kate Leavitt, director of international sales and marketing for SunOpta Grains and Food Group. The industry missed the opportunity of providing the information first, she said.

The industry isn't viewed as transparent and therefore is viewed as having something to hide, Leavitt said.

Consumers are asking for a choice. SunOpta, a publicly traded company, provides consumers a choice. They source non-GMO corn, soybeans and sunflowers from 4,000 Midwest family farmers. They test every load at the gate to be sure it meets their specifications and deliver what their customer requests.

There has been a groundswell of requests for a voluntary non-GMO label. Although the measure calling for mandatory labeling was defeated by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin in Washington state, both sides say there is a national battle looming. The defeat in Washington follows a similar defeat in California.

Strong support early on

The measures in Washington and California had early strong support in polls, according to Reuters. That support ebbed as food and agricultural industry players poured millions of dollars into advertising campaigns spelling out what the industry groups said were deep flaws in the proposed laws. A consortium that includes General Mills, Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Monsanto and other corporate giants contributed roughly $22 million to kill the labeling law.

Despite the Washington loss, proponents pushing for labeling on food made from genetically modified crops cite progress in 20 other U.S. states, particularly in Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. They say they also will turn up the pressure on federal lawmakers and regulators.

Opponents of labeling say they don't want to keep waging a multi-million-dollar, state-by-state fight against mandatory GMO labeling. Any labeling should be voluntary and follow standards set at the federal level as state-by-state labeling could create costly problems for food manufacturing and distribution channels, they say.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food companies, is funding efforts in 25 states to defeat labeling measures. The group is pushing for a "federal solution that will protect consumers by ensuring that the FDA, America's leading food safety authority, sets national standards for the safety and labeling of products made with GMO ingredients," GMA CEO Pamela Bailey said in a statement.

Health, safety, nutrition are key

At the Agri-Growth meeting, Finkel said U.S. food labels have been built around health, safety and nutrition since 1907.

It already is possible to label food with a non-GMO label, MacDonald said. She opposes mandatory labels because she can't justify the increase in cost to put non-GMO on the label. Labels traditionally have been put on packages for nutrition and safety reasons; there is no difference in nutrition and safety between GMO and non-GMO.

In order for a label to have value, it requires oversight. A non-GMO label isn't meaningful unless it is regulated, Leavitt said.

A loud, vocal minority is driving the debate, Finkel said. Most consumers don't care if their food contains genetically modified ingredients.

A non-GMO label will stop biotechnology, Yost said. If biotechnology in agriculture is stopped, how many people will starve to death?

Genetic modification is one of the most environmentally safe ways to deliver more food, said Chuck Lee, who is head of Syngenta's corn unit in North America.

Different rules in different areas

Fifty-six countries have mandatory labeling, Leavitt said.

Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food comes from and transparency is fine, Yost said. There is nothing to hide in agriculture as farmers have never done a better job than they're doing right now.

MacDonald said people who live on the coasts don't see farmers and don't know how food is grown. There is a disconnect between farmers and consumers. It's nothing new to distrust something new. Even the iron plow was challenged, she said.

Leavitt said consumers want a choice. The organic market has grown by 10 percent year during the year. It's a growing, robust market, she said.

MacDonald said the organic market has to be concerned about the messages it's sending. There's a fine line between choice and fueling scare tactics.

This report contains information from Reuters.