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Amid the GMO labeling fight, industry experts weigh in

A customer shops at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vt., one of three states that have passed GMO labeling laws.
A customer shops at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vt., one of three states that have passed GMO labeling laws.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

The battle over the labeling of genetically modified foods continues at a fevered pitch. Also called genetically engineered food, these are crops or animals whose genes are altered in a laboratory, as opposed to traditional breeding.

Should consumers know about that by reading a label?

After contentious debate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would prohibit states from requiring labels on genetically modified foods. Backed by many heavy-hitters in agribusiness, the bill, if it passes in the Senate, would void Vermont, Maine and Connecticut's laws passed recently requiring the labeling of GM foods.

Foods have been scientifically modified since before Gregor Mendel and his peas. But a new breed of genetically modified foods debuted in 1994.

Today more than 90 percent of domestic soybeans, cotton and corn are genetically modified. The yeast in most wine is genetically modified. The rennet in nearly all cheese is genetically modified. So, 20 years later, why have the pro-biotech and anti-GMO camps become so entrenched?

For activists, GMOs are a proxy for larger political and social concerns about agribusiness.

This is "an issue of political opportunism," says Carmen Bain, a sociologist at Iowa State University who studies the fight over GMO food labeling. At the same time, she says, anti-GMO activism has been broadly caricatured as anti-science.

Phrases like "right to know" "choice" and "transparency" resonate with key American values, cultural norms and trends, she said, and that labeling is a specific, concrete and achievable goal.

"People want their purchasing patterns to reflect their values," she said Wednesday at a National Press Foundation conference in St. Louis. This means organic, fair trade, animal welfare, local food and, yes, non-GMO.

On the other hand, population growth and huge changes in world wealth, especially in Asia and Africa, will likely lead to the doubling of demand for food by 2050, Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto, told the conference on Tuesday.

"Our choice is how smartly we use tools to meet that demand," he said.

He pointed to the digitization of the farm ("the average tractor today has more sensors than the first spaceships that went to the moon"), to new work Monsanto is doing with microbials (essentially research into "probiotics" for seeds) and continued work in GMO crops.

"Innovation is as crucial to food security and farming as it is in any other industry," he said.

Still, labeling GM foods in no way inhibits research or expansion of biotech products or companies. Why the push-back against labeling from agribusiness?

Many agribusinesses, including Monsanto, the world's largest agriculture company which has come under fire from anti-GMO activists, support voluntary labeling. But the companies argue that a state-by-state approach would be a logistical nightmare for farmers whose products cross state lines.

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A Cornell University study has been widely used by biotech advocates to suggest grocery costs for a family could increase by an average of $500 per year with GMO labeling mandates, a claim the Washington Post found to be an exaggeration.

This appears to be a win for biotech. But Hugh Grant, Monsanto's CEO, told conference attendees Tuesday that it is essential to find the middle ground in some of these big questions as "food security, nutrition, climate and agriculture policy have taken center stage."

Monsanto has four main crop platforms: GM corn, soy beans and cotton and mostly non-GM vegetables. As a result of genetically modified seed, Grant says, less chemistry (pesticides, fungicides and herbicides) is used in the fields and yields are way up.

"In other cultures, farmers, who are often women, are hungry for innovation," he said. "They (need to produce) more food on shrinking acres due to the impacts of climate change."

In the United States, it seems that a large percent of consumers are increasingly leery, or at least want to know if their foods contain GMOs. Or do they?

Bain said that when consumers are asked, "What information would you like to see on food labels?" only 7 percent said information about genetically modified foods. But asked directly, "Should GM foods be labeled?" and 73 percent said yes.

"GMO supporters feel that they are critical to feeding the world," Bain said. "Critics would argue that we already produce enough food to feed the world and that it's a question of access.

"People look at science through their own value system."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

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