The issue has been smoldering for a long time with hot spots here and there. Should our food items be required to have a GMO label? Vermont was the first state to require food products to have a GMO or GMO-free label, but other states are considering or have considered the issue. Faced with the potential of 50 different regulations, the food industry called on Congress to set a national standard. This was the accelerant that sparked the smoldering issue into a raging fire. Last summer, the House passed H.R.1599 the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which blocked states from requiring GMO labels on food. Now the Senate has taken up the issue.
The Senate bill, introduced by Pat Roberts, seeks to do more than just ban mandatory GMO labels. It seeks to set up protocols for the approval and monitoring of GMO products and seeks to develop a system that provides consumers assurance about the safety of what is in their food, while not stigmatizing biotechnology or stifling innovation. These important points are being lost, however, in the cacophony of rhetoric by the anti-GMO crowd. The proposed federal law on labeling is seen by anti-GMO advocates as a direct attack on states’ rights, earning it the nickname the “Dark Act.”
In the midst of this negative rhetoric is a clear voice of reason and fact, that voice belongs to Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University. “The attack on GMO technology is the most blatant anti-science of the age, but it is far worse than that,” Daniels told the USDA Outlook Conference last week in Arlington, VA. “Lives are at stake, and while scientists, regulators and business people are naturally reluctant to fight back, it’s morally irresponsible not to.” He is referring to the fact that, without biotechnology, starvation and poverty will be the future for a good part of the world well into the next century. Unfortunately, most Americans and most GMO opponents don’t care about this. They still live under the delusion that organic farming and backyard gardens will be able to meet the world’s food needs in the future.
But, Daniels points out, biotechnology has some real benefits to US consumers. He described a forthcoming study by Purdue agricultural economist Wally Tyner and colleagues that concluded, if the United States banned GMO crops, consumers would pay at least $14 billion more in annual food costs and global agricultural greenhouse gases would increase by up to 17 percent. He concluded by saying, “Thousands of studies and trillions of meals consumed prove the safety of biotechnologies. We would never withhold medications with a safety record like that, and it’s just as wrong and just as anti-scientific to do so for food.” What rare forthright candor from a University President. Yet, this is what is needed — a clearly stated, nonscientific, argument in favor of biotechnology. It is time to stop being mealy-mouthed and to start talking, posting, and tweeting with force and conviction.
Ironically, the same week Daniels made his speech, Purdue released results of a survey that showed what it will take to get most Americans to support GMO technology. Two Purdue researchers found in a nationwide survey that the U.S. public overwhelmingly supports introducing genetically-engineered mosquitoes to help control the spread of the Zika virus. In the survey of 964 US residents, 78 percent of the participants supported the introduction of genetically-modified mosquitoes to fight the Zika virus. The researchers concluded that, “These preliminary findings demonstrate that opposition may not be the same across the board and that issue-specific cases and particularly health-related scenarios may soften the public’s outlook.”
This is the key to winning public support for GMOs. We must shape the argument in terms of how this technology will benefit consumers in the form of safer food, lower food costs, greater food variety, and better nutrition. If we frame the GMO debate in terms of who GMO products do for people and how the loss of this technology would harm people, we could have a lot more public support.
This week the Senate has the chance to solve the label debate. Passage of the bill not end the argument over GMOs and it will not stop food producers from putting a GMO Free label on their products if they choose. But passage of the bill will provide consumers with some assurance that GMOs in their food is safe and that adequate regulations and safeguards are in place to keep their food safe and affordable. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to catch fire and get forceful in showing people why this issue is important to them.
By Gary Truitt