BALLOT initiatives in California and Washington state and bills introduced in more than half of the nation's state legislatures to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) prove that the conversation about biotech labeling needs a national discussion with a national solution, Cathy Enright, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) executive vice president, said.
Three years ago, 15 bills were introduced in different state legislatures on the topic of labeling foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients. That number increased to 20 the following year, and 27 legislatures considered bills in 2013.
Ab Basu, managing director of state affairs at BIO, expects just as many legislatures to consider similar labeling bills this year.
The efforts first started in the Northeast and West, where Basu said there have been "well-funded, well-organized attacks" in states whose agriculture industry differs a bit from traditional row crops. Efforts have also trickled over into traditional agricultural states, such as Illinois, which held several hearings on GMO labeling in 2013.
"It's important to consider if you're a grower, even in the Midwest, that the kind of effort not based upon science but, rather, around the vilification of technology could greatly impact choices and markets," Basu said.
Ray Gaesser, president of the American Soybean Assn., said it costs 15-30% more for a farmer to grow identity-preserved (IP) crops and track from planting, harvest and storage. Normally, he said he would need to see a 25% increase in value in order to grow IP crops. Biotechnology also offers improved savings and efficiencies over non-biotech varieties due to the need to use fewer pesticides and herbicides and take fewer passes across the field.
Today, biotech ingredients are used in 80% of U.S. foods, so consumers could see an estimated $400-per-year increase in food costs as a result of identity preservation or the need to reformulate products.
In order to refocus the biotech discussion, a diverse coalition of almost 30 industry and non-government organizations formed the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food. Besides the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), other key agricultural and feed industry groups in the coalition include the American Feed Industry Assn., National Grain & Feed Assn., American Soybean Assn., National Corn Growers Assn., National Turkey Federation and International Dairy Foods Assn., to name a few.
In addition to a farm-to-fork educational effort, the group also looks to push for a federal legislative solution that would preclude the patchwork of state laws by establishing national standards for the safety and labeling of food and beverage products made with GMOs.
Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, explained that the state campaigns ignore the vast consensus of scientific research that shows that GMOs are not materially different from their non-biotech counterparts.
In order to strike the necessary balance of assuring consumers of the safety of food while upholding the scientific validity of the food's safety, he said a uniform labeling standard is needed.
A key component of the national labeling standard would require the Food & Drug Administration to conduct a safety review of all new GM traits before they are introduced into commerce. FDA would be empowered to mandate the labeling of GM ingredients in food if the agency determines that there is a health, safety or nutrition issue with an ingredient derived from a GMO.
Enright said FDA currently provides voluntary safety reviews on all biotech products, but the solution the coalition seeks would provide statutory authority to require FDA to make mandatory pre-market approvals.
Martin Barbe, National Corn Growers Assn. president, said a federal solution "will bolster consumer confidence in the safety of American food by reaffirming (FDA's) role as the nation's foremost authority on the use and labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients."
Pam Bailey, president and chief executive officer of GMA, reiterated that political campaigns are not the best way to create public policy, noting, "Our nation's food safety and labeling laws should not be set by political campaigns or state and local legislatures but by the FDA, the nation's foremost food safety agency."
No legislation has been introduced on Capitol Hill, but the coalition hopes to increase attention and awareness of the need for a national solution.