The Billings Gazette: Food fight brewing over genetically modified ingredients

A new bill requiring labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients is dividing Montana farmers and consumers.

The federal bill, dubbed the “Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act,” mandates that all food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, be clearly labeled. It has bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, including from that body’s lone farmer, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

It’s a bill for which consumer groups have lobbied for more than a decade, but also one that most Montana farm groups oppose. In communities like Billings, non-GMO labels already appear on grocery store shelves, while irrigated fields bordering the city are seeded with genetically modified corn, sugar beets and alfalfa. Each crop is engineered to survive being sprayed with the herbicide Roundup.

Farmers say GMO science has been a game changer, creating plants that are disease-resistant and don’t suffer through days of growth-stifling chemical hangover after being sprayed for weed control.

Some consumers are trying to avoid foods that contain the very ingredients area farmers are producing. At Good Earth Market, Billings’ food cooperative, non-GMO labels are already appearing on food voluntarily.

“We participate in what’s called the Non-GMO Project. It’s a private certification that any manufacturer can go through to be certified” said Alicia Reyer, the cooperative’s marketer. “It does well. We get customers in here saying we should only carry non-GMO products, but we do carry products for everyone.”

Genetically modified ingredients are fairly commonplace in prepared food and beverages because of high-fructose corn syrup made from genetically modified corn. Granulated sugar from beets in the United States comes from genetically modified crops, as do soybean and canola products.

Label proponents have sought for years to make GMO labeling the law of the land, both through legislation and by lawsuit, with mixed results. Legislatures in 20 states have taken up bills requiring labeling of genetically modified foods, according to a bill database compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.

In Washington state, voters will settle the labeling issue this November after state lawmakers failed to take up an initiative doing so last month. New York lawmakers will consider a GMO labeling bill this year.

In the recently-ended Montana legislative session, a bill draft was requested for a proposed GMO labeling law, but its sponsor reconsidered.

“I didn’t have enough background, personally, to pursue it on my own,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. “I would in the future, though and I’ve told people if they can get me enough factual information, I’ll do it.

“There’s concerns about the effects that GMO foods have on the health of those who consume them, as well as future generations. The only thing I know about it is that it doesn’t reproduce on its own. So, it could potentially be a threat to our food supply.”

In October 2011, the Center for Food Safety sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking to force FDA labeling of GMO foods.

The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have repeatedly concluded that there is no difference between GMOs and foods that aren’t genetically engineered, which is the view held by several farm groups.

“Putting a label on a product implies there’s some difference where none exists,” said Luther Markwart, American Sugar Beet Growers executive vice president.

If people want to label products that do not include GMO ingredients, they should, Markwart said. But suggesting that sugar from a genetically modified beet is somehow different is incorrect.

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation sides with the beet growers, but recognizes the state-level labeling battle. In California last November, voters narrowly defeated Proposition 37, which would have required GMO labeling.

The Montana Grain Growers Association, which doesn’t have a genetically modified wheat product to plant but would like to, is also opposed to labeling. Nationwide, wheat acres have decreased as farmers turn to hardier, high-yielding genetically modified crops like corn and soybeans.

A genetically modified wheat, heat-resistant and drought-tolerant, would keep wheat competitive, said Ryan McCormick, MGGA president.

MGGA has members who raise organic grain, McCormick said. He sees the big problems keeping GMO and non-GMO grain separated at the elevator come harvest time. McCormick said his group will be expressing its concerns to Tester, an organic grain farmer from Big Sandy.

Tester said Thursday in a written statement that consumers have a right to know whether they’re eating genetically modified food.

“Montana’s farmers and ranchers work hard to put good food on kitchen tables around our state. But Montana families have a right to know where their food comes from and what’s in it so they can make informed decisions about the foods they choose,” Tester said. “Whether that means labeling genetically engineered foods or letting consumers know their food’s country of origin, I will always support common-sense measures that increase transparency and empower Montana families.”

The Montana Farmers Union supports GMO labeling, said Chris Christiaens, MFU legislative and project specialist.

“We believe in labeling all the food, regardless of GMO or anything else,” Christiaens said.

MFU has members who plant genetically modified crops, Christiaens said. In the current era of farming, GMOs are very commonplace.

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