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House Ag Committee Examines the Impacts of Mandatory GMO Labeling

March 24, 2015
On Tuesday, March 24, 2015, the House Full Committee on Agriculture held a hearing to examine the costs and impacts of mandatory biotechnology labeling laws. Witnesses included Dr. David B. Schmidt, President and CEO, International Food Information Council and Foundation, Washington, D.C.; Dr. Nina Federoff, Senior Science Advisor, OFW Law, Washington, D.C.; Mrs. Joanna Lidback, Owner, The Farm at Wheeler Mountain, Westmore, VT; Mr. Lynn Clarkson, President, Clarkson Grain Company, Inc., Cerro Gordo, IL; Mr. Thomas Dempsey, CEO, Snack Food Association, Arlington, VA; and Mr. Chris Policinski, President and CEO, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Arden Hills, MN.

Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX-11) opened by commenting on how mankind has been modifying crops for years which has lead to better, more plentiful harvests. Chairman Conaway argued that the safety of plant biotechnology has been confirmed by several leading scientific bodies including the American Medical Association, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Academy of Sciences, just to name a few. He mentioned the recent study by economists at Cornell University concluded that
"a family of four in New York State could pay, on average, an additional $500 in annual food costs if mandatory labeling becomes law. The state would also incur an estimated $1.6 million in costs from writing and enforcing new regulations and litigating potential lawsuits related to mandatory labeling, which could run as high as $8 million and will also factor into the increased costs consumers see in their annual food bills." 

Lastly, Chairmen Conaway argued that currently 26 states have arbitrary and confusing labeling legislation being considered, which is path that we should not be going down.

Ranking Committee Member Collin Peterson (D-MN-7) opened by commenting that while the Energy & Commerce Committee has leading power in this area, it is important for the Committee on Agriculture to examine GMO labeling. He also mentioned that a solution to labeling must reach a balance between safety and meeting consumer demands.

Below BIO has highlighted remarks made by each panelist during their testimony and the question and answer segment of the hearing:

IFIC President and CEO, Dr. David Schmidt testified on the 2014 IFIC Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey, which looked at US consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology and related aspects, such as labeling. This was the 16th survey that IFIC had conducted on this topic, Schmidt explained. 
"In our nearly two decades of consumer research, we’ve learned that consumers are supportive of the many benefits of food and agricultural biotechnology when clearly articulated."

He stated several results of the survey...

"We first asked if people were avoiding any particular foods or ingredients in their diet. Only 2 percent of total respondents mentioned biotech food—or even similar terms like the aforementioned 'GMOs.'"

"We first asked if people were avoiding any particular foods or ingredients in their diet. Only 2 percent of total respondents mentioned biotech food—or even similar terms like the aforementioned GMOs. Then we asked them if they could think of any information that currently isn't on food labels but should be. Three-quarters said 'no'."

"Two-thirds of Americans said they were confident in the safety of the food supply. This number has remained consistently high since 2008, which might come as a surprise to some, given the tone and tenor of the rhetoric that surrounds us."

"When we asked the respondents to offer their impressions of food biotechnology (before mentioning any benefits), there was an almost even split between 28 percent who were favorable to the technology and 29 percent who were unfavorable. More than four in 10 were either neutral or didn't know enough to offer a response."

Dr. Schmidt ended the question and answer segment of the hearing with a great point:
“It’s not a science debate or even a safety debate – it’s a communications debate.”

Dr. Nina Federoff spoke on why mandatory labeling of foods containing GM ingredients is counterproductive to Americans’ ability to make healthful food choices. Dr. Federoff is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a National Medal of Science Laureate. She has served as the Science and Technology Adviser to Secretaries of State to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

"Despite anecdotal reports, often never published or subsequently retracted, no allergies, illnesses or deaths have been reproducibly linked to the consumption of GM food or feed. Environmental impacts for the period 1996-2012 include the application of 503,000 tons less pesticide (active ingredient), greenhouse gas reductions of 16 million tons CO2 and increased soil carbon sequestration from no till farming estimated at more than 200 million tons CO2."

"Scientific academies and scientific societies around the world concur that modern methods of genetic modification are as safe as those used by previous generations of plant and animal breeders, arguably safer."
"Organic produce is no more nutritious than conventionally grown produce...Organic produce is more expensive because organic farming is land-inefficient and labor-intensive. Organic marketers – and many other kinds of anti-GMO activists – have openly stated that GMO labeling will help them drive GMOs out of the market...

"The anti-GMO activities of vocal NGOs, particularly Greenpeace, and the organic industry’s false and misleading marketing are the primary reasons that consumers believe GMOs are bad and organic food is good."

"It is often claimed that consumers have a 'right to know' what they are eating. However, adding a 'GM' label to food containing an ingredient from a GMO will not help the consumer make meaningful distinctions about either the food’s safety or its health benefits."

"Labeling would drive up the cost of food while sending the false message that there’s something to worry about..."

"My final point is that there are serious humanitarian implications should the GMO vilification efforts succeed in driving GM technology out of agriculture. Global agricultural productivity increases are even now lagging behind population growth – and that’s without figuring in the growing impact of climate warming."

Vermont Dairy Farmer Joanna Lidback testified on how GMOs have helped reduced costs for her business.
"I believe that biotech varieties improve efficiency and productivity of farming. I also believe that biotechnology enables us to lessen the environmental impact that growing can have because less fertilizer and pesticides are used to grow an abundant crop."

"Now the agriculture industry is facing increased scrutiny for its use of biotechnology — a technology that has enabled farmers to increase yields while reducing the use of land, pesticides, fertilizers, water, and even fuel. Despite the fact that there is no credible study of biotech crops that has found them unsafe for human and animal consumption, some special interest groups are still choosing to spread misinformation, reject the technology and demand it be labeled on food products."

Mrs. Lidback spoke on how the use of biotechnology on her farm has helped her business thrive...There simply is no non-GMO grain available to us, or the freight cost would be so prohibitive it’s not a real option. Thus, an organic basic 20 percent protein complete feed would cost $750 per ton; the same conventional feed is currently $333 per ton. On our small farm, we purchase about 16 tons of grain per month. So, using 16 tons, that would more than double our grain bill, or in hard numbers we would spend $5,328 per month for regular feed or $12,000 per month on organic feed—a difference of $6,672 a month or $80,064 per year.
"I do not see how we could profitably farm in the long term with those increased feed costs. It is important to note that we choose to not be organic for several reasons and thus would not receive an organic premium for our milk even if we used the organic grain mix simply to feed a non-GMO feed."

Noted several times throughout the hearing by both congressional members and her fellow panelists, Joanna has become the subject of harassment by anti-GMO activists since she last testified in front of Congress against GMO labeling. All present in the room condemned these actions and applauded her for her courage in returning to testify before Congress.

Lynn Clarkson is President of the Clarkson Grain Company, a grain, oilseed, and ingredient supplier to the food manufacturing and animal-feed industries.
“It is my belief that the non-GMO market would also grow if there were a uniform national standard overseen by USDA.

“USDA has world-class expertise in managing process verified programs. It seems to me to be straightforward.”

Clarkson offered suggestions for Congress to considered when trying to come up with a solution for GMO labeling:

  • Congress should support a farmer’s freedom to produce for his preferred markets without being dominated by his neighbor’s production choices. As you can see this sword cuts both ways.

  • Congress can provide support through adequate funding, research in non-GMO corn and soy varieties so that farmers might rapidly access this new market.

  • Congress needs to support a farmers’ choice of hybrids or quality attributes, GMO presence or absence, or organic or non-organic production methods.

  • Congress should help us in the countryside to always balance and respect a producer’s production decisions as they provide a safe and abundant food supply for the world’s needs.

Thomas Dempsey, President and CEO of the Snack Food Association, spoke on the challenges manufactures would face if they have to comply with mandatory GMO labeling. He argued mandatory labeling at the state level would impact nearly every aspect of SFA members’ business by upping the costs required to increase product inventory, adding complexity for packaging and distribution processes, and create extensive new regulatory and training requirements.
"SFA does not have a single member company that manufactures, distributes, and sells in just one state making a state labeling law incredibly complex to deal with. Multiply the challenges I’ve presented here for compliance in Vermont’s Act 120 times 5, or 10, or even 25 states and you place an insurmountable burden on our food supply chain and add significant increased cost to our consumers."

He made some interesting remarks on sourcing challenges, "in order to avoid the need for duplicate labels in a state like Vermont, it is sometimes assumed that companies could simply remove the GMO ingredients from their products altogether. This is unrealistic because the availability of non-GMO crops is very limited."
"Over 80 percent of the corn, cotton, and soybean crops in the U.S. are harvested from genetically engineered plants. Snack food companies purchase a large majority of their ingredients derived from these plants."

Mr. Dempsey called for federal legislation that eliminates the current proposed patchwork of state GMO labeling laws and create one voluntary GMO standard which will rid confusion, advance food safety, and provide much-needed consistency for manufacturers and consumers.

Closing panelist Christopher Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes and a board member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, called for a national voluntary labeling system.
"We would support such a provision, which would ensure that consumers get accurate information while preserving the choices available to shoppers and farmers.”

Dempsey spoke on the benefits of biotechnology including how they contribute to higher yields per acre, require less tillage, reduced the use of pesticides and can improve water quality. He argued that options already exist in the market which are organic foods or food labeled certified non-GMO.

Dempsey testified that for farmers a GMO labeling mandate would stigmatize GMO products, ultimately driving down demand for GMO crops. As a result, farmers will have fewer choices of what to plant, will see higher costs due to crop segregation, lower yields, a decline in productivity, and in increased in environmental input.

Dempsey concluded that mandatory state labeling would only create chaos and called for voluntary Non-GMO labeling as the solution. By this he meant that "under federal preemption, Congress can create a voluntary, uniform national solution to the labeling of food products derived from ingredients using biotechnology. This approach supports efforts already underway int the marketplace, such as the USDA organic program."