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New ag coalition seeks federal GMO standards

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

A new coalition of food industry businesses and nongovernmental organizations will advocate for federal policy requiring labeling of biotech ingredients only when they're linked to a health or nutrition issue.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new coalition aims to avoid local and state biotech crop labeling requirements by enacting a federal standard, directing the Food and Drug Administration to require a label only when traits are linked to a health, safety or nutrition risk.

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food represents 29 food industry and nongovernmental organizations, including the U.S. Beet Sugar Alliance and the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Members support new FDA policies governing how companies can voluntarily label products for the presence or absence of genetically modified organisms.

The coalition will also advocate to change FDA safety reviews of new GMO traits from voluntary to mandatory, though industry officials acknowledge they’re already pursuing the reviews and providing their own third-party research data to expedite the approval process.

“Changing from voluntary to mandatory will not affect Monsanto much. We already view (FDA reviews) as mandatory on us,” said Trent Clark, a spokesman for Monsanto’s operations in Soda Springs, Idaho.

The coalition believes FDA should define the term “natural” to establish a consistent legal framework for food and beverage labels.

Coalition leaders said during a Jan. 6 conference call they fear GMO ballot initiatives could lead to a “messy patchwork of regulations” that would significantly increase food costs. California voters rejected the first initiative aimed at imposing GMO labeling in November 2012. Last November, Washington voters also shot down a GMO labeling initiative. The organization Oregon Right to Know is pushing for a GMO voter initiative for this November.

“Political campaigns are not the best way to decide public policy,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Bailey cited independent studies concluding mandatory labeling would increase annual food costs by $400 per family to cover additional supply chain burdens.

On his own farm, American Soybean Association President Ray Gaesser estimates it costs 15-30 percent more to voluntarily raise identity-preserved crops. In a state like Missouri, surrounded by eight other states, he believes adhering to different state labeling rules would be especially costly.

“When you look at the real world impact of these state-by-state regulations, it simply becomes too much for farmers to bear,” Gaesser said.

Coalition members emphasized GMO ingredients are found in roughly 80 percent of the U.S. diet and have existed for about two decades without a single documented case of a food safety risk. Martin Barbre, National Corn Growers president, said in recent years, GMO traits have helped his producers cope with drought and cut annual insecticide applications by about 110 million pounds.

Oregon Right to Know spokesman Scott Bates, however, believes the industry has simply sought to discredit any studies showing problems with GMO technology, such as impeding beneficial bacteria in intestines from digesting food. As his initiative’s signature drive continues, Bates believes an election ballot including gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana and a governor’s race will increase turnout and help his cause.

“We as a movement have wanted federal standards for quite some time,” Bates said. “It’s really only because of a lack of a federal movement that we as states are trying to do it at the state level.”



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