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My Turn

Labeling effort is confusing, misleading

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 New Hampshire farm stands and farmers’ markets if legislation currently before the New Hampshire 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 New Hampshire 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 New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation in Concord.)

Legacy Comments6

Here is why it is important for New Hampshire residents to think about whether they want to know what they are eating and make change on the state level. Our national government is bought out by big interest, and in response, dozens of bills have popped up across the US for American's RIGHT TO KNOW. NH needs its residents to put pressure on their state representatives to REPRESENT the people (this is how bills in CT and ME passed). 64 other countries enjoy the RIGHT TO KNOW what is in their food. Responding to this article, Robert suggests consumers would be confused and misled by "Genetic Engineered" labels, but he is on the side that is spending millions to keep Americans in the dark when it comes to what is in your food.

If "Genetically Engineered" is too scary how about "Proudly Genetically Engineered By Monsanto to help Feed The Future". I am not a science experiment. Contaminating a farmers field with Monsanto seed whether by accident (wind) or who knows how and then claiming that crop to belong to absolutely criminal. What scares me the most is that this is not headline news. As far as the statement that consumers can avoid GMOs by eating things labeled as organic, the organic label has NOTHING to do with GMOs. Organic products can also contain GMOs. ONLY if a product LABEL reads GMO free is it GMO free.

This is crazy. You're more concerned with making a profit than the quality of the product your selling? Everyone has a right to know if something is genetically modified. Simple supply & demand. If consumers see that your products have GMO's and don't want to buy them, let that be their decision and maybe that will push you to stop growing these awful things in the first place. Replace them with sustainable crops that aren't a danger to our ecosystem.

While the GE industry would like you to think that their process is just the same as farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Consider just how many times you have seen a pig having sex with a strawberry or a bacterium having sex with a tomato. What farmers and nature has been doing for thousands of years is called hybridizing and involves pollinating one kind of corn with another. This is not like that. It is mostly interspecies (a cow and a turnip) not intraspecies (two kinds of corn). The way that the FDA behaves now, there is little or no testing of the results of these new versions of old plants. Almost all of the testing is done by the people who make money from having the results of their business approved before any unbiased examination is made.

There is no way to put into 250 words, or less, how wrong the author of this article is, but I will try and sum it up. The BT gene in Monsanto's GMO "roundup ready" corn has never been tested long term on humans, EXCEPT for what is being currently consumed in the open market. So YOU'RE the long term study folks. Additionally, the even greater short term threat is the 3 fold increase in pesticide and herbicide use due to to "superbugs" and "superweeds" that have grown immune to not only the BT gene in GMO corn, but to the sprayed herbicides and pesticides as well (sprays that were initially promised to be unnecessary). Since the pesticides and herbicides aren't working individually anymore, farmers are mixing up deadly cocktails of different chemicals with unstudied, but undoubtedly harmful effects. The specific pesticides prevalent in Monsanto's corn (Neonicotinoids) are toxic to a wide variety of beneficial creatures, including some that help protect crops. They are also being tied to colony collapse disorder among honeybees. Additionally, the diversity of life in the soil on a farm growing GMO crops, vs. a farm growing organic crops couldn't be more different; By destroying the diversity of life in the soil it destroys all manner of life around us. GMO crops are ANYTHING but innocuous! Finally, people have a fundamental right to know what they are feeding their families.

"Biotechnology can be explained as a continuation and refinement of the plant breeding that has been part and parcel to agriculture since its beginnings." Not so. introducing genes from other plant, and/or animal species, is not the same as hybridizing, in which the plant itself incorporates new genetic material. Additionally, allowing agribusinesses to patent new strains of seeds is dangerously placing the power of food acquisition in the hands of a few profit driven individuals. The unintended outcomes of this practice are only beginning to be realized, with corporations like Monsanto suing farmers for re-using seeds, or planting seeds that have been infected with patented genetic material that the farmers never intended their plants to have, due to pollination from GMO fields.

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