SAN ANTONIO — Discussions of genetically modified crops and proposed federal water regulations attracted big crowds and sent many away muttering during the American Farm Bureau Federation convention Monday.
Cathleen Enright of the Biotechnology Industry Organization said GMO labeling requirements or cultivation bans are a result of “more and more organizations working together to create fear about technology,” malign biotech companies and undermine consumer confidence. She proposed changing the conversation by being open and frank about genetic engineering.
“We have great stories to tell, but we’re not being heard because we’re not believed,” said Enright, who is executive vice president of the organization’s food and agriculture sector.
On water, speakers said rules proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would greatly expand the agency’s regulatory reach, potentially requiring water pollution permits for farming activity near ditches or across areas of pooled water that might seep into streams.
“They’re going to be calling ditches tributaries,” said Don Parrish, senior director of congressional relations for the Farm Bureau. “All of a sudden you’ve got spots in your fields that will become waters of the United States.
“Don’t walk out of here thinking it won’t affect you,” Parrish said.
Enright, of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said biotech crops have been increasingly accepted worldwide, growing at a sustained rate of 6 to 7 percent a year since 1996. In 2012, 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries planted 420 million acres of GMO crops, she said.
Genetically modified crops are those in which a trait has been inserted or modified in the plant’s genetic code. They are alternatively referred to as genetically engineered, biotech or genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMO crops have been grown since the 1990s.
But in the U.S., opponents are “well-coordinated, very well-funded and politically well-connected,” she said. Mandatory labeling movements were backing initiatives in 32 states and Puerto Rico, she said. Narrowly defeating the GMO labeling ballot measure in Washington state last year cost $22 million, Enright said, and a similar campaign in California in 2012 cost $44 million.
“Opposing state-by-state challenges is unsustainable and untenable,” she said.
Instead, the biotech industry and farmers ought to engage opponents in frank and open discussions, especially using social media to reach out to people, answer questions and explain the science, Enright said. Opponents have a seven-year head start, she said, but polls show it’s not too late to turn the debate. A website created to answer questions — www.gmoanswers.com — has attracted heavy traffic.
“Only when our audience understands we are listening to them will they begin to listen to us,” she said.
Her organization has 1,100 member companies, all involved in biotech research and development in the fields of agriculture, health care and other industries.
In the water seminar, the Farm Bureau’s Parrish and Washington, D.C., attorney Virginia Albrecht said the EPA draft rules greatly expand the agency’s regulatory authority. The agency backpedaled after a draft was leaked, and insists that farm ditches are exempted, but Parrish and Albrecht questioned that.
“You might be exempt to plow through it, harvest through it and plant through it,” Parrish said, but “spraying pesticides or fertilizer may require a Clean Water Act permit.”
During a comment period, farmer Percy Hoekema of Everson, Wash., stood and took the microphone.
“I’m from Washington state,” he said. “You can add another dimension to it called salmon.”
He said “every ditch, every downspout” on his property is regulated to protect salmon, and he has to do habitat mitigation if he wants to put up a new building. He said the EPA’s proposals would require “millions” of new employees.