By FRANK PRIESTLEY
For the Capital Press
A ballot proposition requiring labeling of genetically modified food, assumed by many as a slam dunk, was given a thumbs down by California voters recently, leaving backers of the dubious idea scratching their heads.
Prop. 37 proponents from all over the country are now regrouping for their next onslaught on our food supply. The fact that they can't prove there is any difference between the sugar, corn, or soy, that comes from a genetically engineered seed and the sugar, corn or soy that comes from traditional seeds makes no difference -- to them.
When you drill down to the farm level on this issue, biotech crops have become very important, to say the least. Biotech corn and soybeans have made up a significant portion of the U.S. harvest since 1995. Biotech sugar beets now make up 95 percent of the total crop. Corn and soybean percentages are similar. Before they were introduced, the crops were evaluated by various federal agencies and deemed safe for human consumption with no discernible differences from conventional crops. But is there a risk? History suggests otherwise.
In addition to increased yields, biotech crops eliminate the need for multiple applications of weed-killing chemicals. Biotech crops are engineered to withstand application of glyphosate, a multispectrum herbicide. What this means is farmers using biotech seeds are able to apply glyphosate to kill both broadleaf weeds and grasses. The chemical blocks the photosynthetic process of the weeds -- in effect killing them by eliminating their ability to process sunlight, without harming the crop in production. This technology has saved farmers millions of dollars while at the same time drastically reduced the amount of chemical herbicide needed to bring a crop to harvest.
So biotech crops are good for farmers and good for the environment, too. But what is the benefit to consumers? Better yields equals more food available to feed a growing population. A ready supply of commodities also keeps grocery prices affordable.
Should food that contains biotechnology be labeled? It's an interesting question. California voters took Prop. 37 down by a 53 to 47 percent margin despite polling data that showed 91 percent of Americans support labeling food that comes from biotech crops. This is an important vote because California is a bellwether state, is the country's most populous state and is the top producer of agriculture products in the nation.
Supporters of Prop. 37 argued that consumers have a right to know what is in the food they eat, which is a point well taken. But the fact of the matter is the food is the same whether it contains biotechnology or not. In addition, the cost of labeling food packaging increases the overall cost of the food. California voters decided it wasn't an expense worth paying for.
Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.