Headwinds, Tailwinds for GMO Labeling

The winds on the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) front are blowing every which way but static, as seed and pesticide producers and most food marketers and retailers in the U.S. -– but not all -– stamp at brush fires in every direction. 

The Connecticut legislature overwhelming approved a law yesterday that would require that food containing GMOs sold in the state be labeled as such –- but only if four other states do the same, one of them being a neighbor. It won’t be New York, however, at least in the short term. A bill introduced by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, was defeated in committee Monday.

Meanwhile, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, which still rides its iconoclastic horse despite being a division of Unilever, says it will remove all GMO ingredients from its products by the end of next year, Fox News reports. Currently only 80% of the 80 flavors in 200 or so products containing variations of 110 ingredients sold in the U.S. and Canada are GMO-free. 



And In Oregon, 15 members of a Dept. of Agriculture team are making sure that an experimental strain of GMO wheat discovered in an 80-acre field in a remote section of the state last week was an anomaly, Reuters reports. Because of the widespread ban on GMO products in overseas markets, ag officials are worried about the impact of the discovery on the export market. 

Monsanto, which developed the strain, ended its trials of the GMO wheat in 2005 and never sold it. It is conducting its own investigation into where the wheat came from and says that it believes that “the presence of the genetically modified trait is ‘very limited,’” Ian Berry and Sameer C. Mohindru report in the Wall Street Journal. A government spokesman tells Reuters’ Charles Abbott and Jane Chung that there are “no indications that there is any GE (genetically engineered) wheat in commerce.”

Monsanto last week told the German newspaper Tageszeitung (Taz)  it “won't be pursuing licenses for any new genetically modified plants or doing any new field trials of GMO seeds in most parts of western Europe,” CBC News reports.

“We have come to understand that, at the moment, it doesn't have broad acceptance,” Ursula Luettmer-Ouazane, Monsanto's spokesperson for Germany, told Taz. "It's counterproductive to fight against windmills."

But Monsanto has by no means given up the fight in North America.

“Score another victory for Monsanto,” reads the lede on David Knowles report about the defeat of labeling legislation in the Empire State in the New York Daily News. “Lauren Schuster, [Assemblywoman] Rosenthal’s chief of staff, said that a lobbyist for the Council for Biotechnology Information, which represents genetically modified food giants Monsanto and DuPont, attended the committee vote,” and reportedly made a strong enough case for some sponsors to flip their positions.

One of the GMO lobby’s arguments is that “labeling by an individual state might put that state’s industry and businesses at a disadvantage compared with other states,” Stephanie Strom reports in the New York Times. Indeed, Connecticut, with all of its qualifications, is the first state to pass a broad GMO labeling requirement, although more than 20 other states are actively considering it.

“It makes little sense for Connecticut to go it alone,” reads an editorial in the Hartford Courant on May 31, “when it comes to food labeling -- especially on an issue that's as unsettled as this is. To do so would doubtless raise costs and make it easier for manufacturers to stop selling here. For the law to work, it's necessary to get other states on board.”

Cathleen Enright, EVP for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, tells Strom that the industry supports voluntary labeling, noting that the Food and Drug Administration “typically required labeling of foods only when issues like food safety, consumer health or nutrition were at stake.”

The organization also makes the case that “feeding the growing population by 2050 will require doubling food production and improving food distribution. Accomplishing this will necessitate significant increases in the amount of food produced per acre, or crop yield.” That’s what biotechnology accomplishes, it says, among other benefits

“Okay, fine,” reply proponents of labeling. Then be up front about it.

“We support those calling for transparency and a consumer’s right to know and support the push for mandatory labeling,” Ben and Jerry’s says on its website. “We ought to all have freedom to choose whether or not we want to eat food that has been genetically engineered. We think this is a fundamental right.”

So do an overwhelming majority of citizens, according to independent polls compiled by the admittedly partisan Center for Food Safety, leaving one to surmise that Monsanto and its cohorts are at least tilting at the wind in North American, if not windmills quite yet.

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