Concord Monitor: Labeling Effort is Misleading
Labeling effort is confusing, misleading
By ROBERT JOHNSON
For the Monitor
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Imagine you are driving home from work. You decide to stop at a local farm stand to pick up your first fresh-picked ears of sweet corn of the summer. You arrive with anticipation, thinking about the fresh corn. But your expression changes as you approach the display stand. The ears look fresh and inviting, but something else grabs your attention. A sign conspicuously placed over the corn reading “Genetically Engineered.”
This scene would become reality at Massachusetts farm stands and farmers’ markets if legislation currently before the Massachusetts House Environment and Agriculture Committee, mandating genetically modified foods be labeled, becomes law. Proponents tout it as “right to know,” pro-transparency legislation. As farmers, we ask how anything so confusing and misleading can be seen as informative and transparent.
We have serious concerns that our customers would take one look at the sign and make any number of false assumptions. One assumption might be the belief that it speaks for all of the produce in the stand. A customer might walk away without truly understanding the intended impact. More information does not necessarily mean more knowledge or provide greater transparency. This might be considered a “right to know,” but in reality it creates confusion about what you think you know.
When customers have questions about biotechnology, we encourage them to speak with us. We encourage this in many ways, including through signage. These discussions are invaluable. We can explain firsthand, and often do so in detail, about how biotechnology works, the effects on our farms and on our quality of life.
Biotechnology can be explained as a continuation and refinement of the plant breeding that has been part and parcel to agriculture since its beginnings. With conventional plant breeding, a whole slew of genes are transferred. Genes are responsible for desired traits as well as unwanted traits. Biotechnology enables the precise transfer of specific genes. In each process, the plant genomes are altered. The difference is the tools that are used. Evolution and adaptation are constantly occurring in nature; biotechnology only speeds up the process. In light of a changing climate, this will only be more important in the future.
We explain the benefits of biotechnology on our farming operations and the environment by the application of fewer chemicals, less fuel consumed and less time in the field. One local young farmer sees quality of life in biotechnology. He laments that his customers are not yet to the point of supporting his growing genetically modified sweet corn varieties. He estimates that if they were, he would have an additional 60 hours each summer to spend with his young family.
The Massachusetts Farm Bureau makes the following broader points about HB 660 and biotechnology in general:
Only the federal government has the expertise and resources to regulate biotechnology. A patchwork of state regulations would be unworkable and result in needless increases in the price of food for all of us.
The bill is not necessary. Voluntary labeling of biotechnology already exists. By 2018, the fastest growing grocery chain in the country, Whole Foods Market, will require all vendors label their products to indicate if they contain genetically modified ingredients. Walmart, the largest food retailer in the country, is reportedly weighing a similar requirement. Industry is already making it happen. Consumers wanting to avoid genetically modified foods can purchase certified organic foods.
Mandatory labeling is misleading as it implies a health or safety issue. In the nearly 20 years since genetically modified foods have been a part of our food supply, not a single verified case of illness has been attributed to biotechnology. The Food and Drug Administration has continually upheld its safety, and last summer the American Medical Association reaffirmed its position that FDA’s “science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling.”
Claims that genes do not cross the species barrier in nature are false. Plant geneticists tell us tell us it happens in nature and is done by conventional breeders all the time.
Farmers must have access to the best technology to manage limited natural resources and increase productivity. Our success depends on public policies that are guided by science and that encourage the development and acceptance of innovative agricultural practices and solutions. As public policy, HB 660 fails this test.
(Robert Johnson is policy director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation in Concord.)