Public Confidence ‘Necessary Ingredient’ in GMO Labeling Debate

In Sen. Pat Roberts’ failed bid to convince the U.S. Senate to advance a bill banning mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods on Wednesday, the Kansas Republican ran down a long list of reasons he said mandatory labeling of such foods would prove calamitous for consumers, farmers and the food industry.

Calling labeling a “wrecking ball” that must be stopped, Roberts said among other things, mandatory labeling might drive U.S. farmers to grow more non-genetically altered crops. These farmers would be “forced,” Roberts said in his remarks on the floor, to turn away from the genetically engineered corn and soybeans many currently grow, to instead produce grains that match better with consumer demand.

And that would be a bad thing, why?

It’s noteworthy that other than corn and soy, most of the different types of food crops grown in the United States are already non-GMO. Commercial supplies of wheat — one of the top food crops produced in the United States — are not genetically modified. Neither are most of the supplies of rice, sorghum and a host of other fruits and vegetables that farmers around the country work hard to produce year after year. Those farmers’ interests weren’t mentioned by Roberts in the debate on Wednesday.

The focus for Roberts seems to be the farmers who grow the genetically engineered corn and soybean seeds developed by Monsanto Co. Introduced to the market 20 years ago to tolerate treatments of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, these glyphosate-tolerant crops have come to dominate the American acreage devoted to corn and soybeans. And the sales of those seeds and the chemicals used on them spell billions of dollars for Monsanto and the other companies that sell the GMO seeds and agrichemicals used with them.

But over time, consumers have come to distrust the corporate and regulatory claims of GMO safety, and to worry about a range of unintended outcomes tied to GMO crops. Many worry that the glyphosate herbicide sprayed on the crops leaves harmful residues in food made with GMOs. The World Health Organizationclassifies glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Amid this mounting distrust of GMOs have come the calls for labeling.

The biotech crop industry and large food companies have spent more than $100 million to try to block any GMO labeling over the years precisely because they fear that foods labeled as containing GMOs will repel consumers. They’ve said as much. Roberts said it again Wednesday.

If foods made with GMO crops carry a label identifying them as such, consumers will choose other options and the trickle-down effect will cause farmers to grow other options, according to Roberts: “Those decisions impact the farmers in the fields who would be pressured to grow less efficient crops so manufacturers could avoid these demonizing labels”, he said.

Farmers who are already growing non-GMO crops, including non-GMO corn and soybeans, would seemingly benefit from such a consumer turn. In fact, data gathered by the non-GMO working group indicates that such a market demand-driven reversal is already underway.

According to the food industry verification organization Non-GMO Project, as of December 31, there were 34,776 non-GMO products, up from 24,230 a year prior, and 14,785 at the end of 2013 and only 4,000 in 2011. The products include bread and baked goods, baby foods, beverages, cereals, candy and more. And the ingredients for all these foods is coming from a growing number of farmers and expanding acreage devoted to non-GMO crops.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that many GMO corn growers this year are shifting to grow non-GMO corn because the seed is cheaper and they can receive a modest premium for their grain, said Russ Gaskin, a food industry consultant on non-GMO production.

In his remarks Wednesday, Roberts called for an open and frank debate about GMO labeling: “It’s extremely important to have an honest discussion,” said Roberts. “And finally vote in the best interests of our constituents.”

An honest review of Roberts’ comments indicates that he sees his constituents as the corn and soybean seed companies and the agrichemical giants who profit from GMOs, not consumers. “You are either for agriculture or you are not,” Roberts said in calling on other senators to vote against mandatory labeling.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democrat and challenger for his party’s presidential nomination, laid it out in his statement following the Senate vote. “I am pleased that Congress stood up to the demands of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations and rejected this outrageous bill. Today’s vote was a victory for the American people over corporate interests,” Sanders said.

The Senate ended up rejecting Roberts’ bill, which would have ified a law in Vermont set to take effect in July, and headed off similar efforts in other states. Now, those who want mandatory labeling and those opposed must continue to sort through efforts at compromise.

As they work toward compromise, Roberts and other senators hoping to stop mandatory labeling might consider the words of Monsanto’s former CEO Richard Mahoney on the importance of respecting consumer attitudes about GMOs.

“We wanted only ‘the right to operate with the public’s acceptance.” Mahoney wrote in a 2005 commentary addressing the regulatory system for biotech crop technology. “…public confidence is a necessary ingredient of new technologies.” 

Sen Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon who is backing mandatory labeling, said on the Senate floor that Democrats are ready to reject state-by-state labeling like the law in Vermont. And they will agree that a label does not need to be on the front of a food package. But, he said, the group of senators pushing for mandatory labeling owe it to consumers not to give way on that over-arching point: “The citizen has the right to know.”