* Bipartisan bill on Wednesday seeks U.S. GMO labeling
* Biotech companies say consumers are confused
* Companies say opposition slows regulatory approvals
* GMO crop critics say safety concerns persist
By Carey Gillam
CHICAGO April 25 New efforts to force labeling
of foods made with genetically modified crops, including a bill
introduced by U.S. lawmakers Wednesday, have struck a nerve with
biotech crop developers who say they are rushing to roll out a
broad strategy to combat consumer concerns about their products.
Executives from Monsanto Co., DuPont, and Dow
Chemical, among the world's largest developers of
biotech crops and the chemicals used to help produce them, told
Reuters this week they are putting together a campaign aimed at
turning the tide on what they acknowledge is a growing public
sentiment against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used as
ingredients in the nation's food supply.
Last year, the industry spent $40 million to defeat a
labeling measure in California. But similar initiatives are
underway now in more than 20 states, and the move by the big
biotech firms is designed to thwart the spread of such
initiatives, which the companies say would confuse consumers and
roil the food manufacturing industry.
"Even when we prevail, we lose," said Cathy Enright,
executive vice president for food and agriculture for the global
Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO,) which includes
Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical as members.
"To try to oppose this state by state, that is
unsustainable," she said.
The big biotech firms are still working out details of their
plan, but it will likely have a large social media component,
the company executives said. The group will focus on conveying
what it says are the many benefits of biotech crops.
Participants have not yet set a budget for the campaign, Enright
The most popular gene-altered crops withstand dousings of
weed-killing chemicals and produce their own insect-killing
toxins. Biotech corn, canola, soybeans, and other crops are used
in human food and animal feed around the world and biotech
companies say they are heavily regulated and thoroughly tested.
Proponents of labeling for GMO foods said momentum is on
their side. Various groups have held rallies over the last
several weeks in Washington, D.C., and at several state capitols
to press the issue.
"They should be worried," said Scott Faber, executive
director of the Just Label It campaign, which has petitioned the
Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of foods
containing genetically engineered ingredients.
In fact, supporters of a Washington state measure similar to
the failed California initiative said Tuesday they had raised
more than $1 million from supporters.
In introducing a U.S. labeling bill Wednesday, U.S. Sen.
Barbara Boxer and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio said consumers have a
right to know what type of ingredients are in their food.
"Consumers deserve to have clear, consistent, and accurate
facts about the food products they purchase," Sen. Richard
Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a statement. Blumenthal was
one of 31 lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill.
Law makers and anti-GMO activists are responding to growing
public concern about possible health risks associated with GMO
foods. While there is no scientific consensus that foods made
with GMO ingredients are harmful, activists argue that people
have a right to know what they are eating.
Last month, grocery retailer Whole Foods said that it would
require suppliers to label any product made with genetically
modified ingredients. And the Natural Products Association,
which represents 1,900 food industry players, has called for a
uniform standard for GMO labeling to apply nationwide.
"This is a rapidly growing movement," said Dave Murphy, a
spokesman for Food Democracy Now, a group pushing for GMO
labeling. "We're not giving up until we have labeling. We're
just not going away."
Monsanto and other biotech crop companies say mandatory
labeling would confuse consumers and could deter them from
purchasing foods made with genetically modified ingredients.
Biotech companies also are concerned that consumer sentiment
is causing regulators to slow down approvals of new GMOs, said
Dow AgroSciences Brad Shurdut. Shurdut leads the company's
government and regulatory affairs.
Dow had hoped to have a GMO corn product called "Enlist" on
the market this year. But amidst opposition from farmers,
consumers and public health officials, the company now expects a
delay of at least a year.
"It is having a profound impact on our regulatory system,"
Monsanto, which in 1996 commercialized the first biotech
crop, a soybean resistant to herbicide, wants to communicate how
biotech crops help farmers produce food, said executive vice
president Jerry Steiner. Despite the worst drought in 50 years,
farmers last year still produced better-than-expected crops due
in large measure to biotech improvements to corn, he said.
Steiner recognizes the industry faces an uphill battle.
"We fully respect that people make up their own minds," said
Steiner. "But there is a fact gap that exists. It is our
responsibility to do a better job of filling it."