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My Turn: Lawmakers aren’t buying anti-GMO scare tactics

Last modified: 11/15/2013 12:31:07 AM
On Nov. 6, the New Hampshire House Committee on Environment and Agriculture dealt a blow to an effort in New Hampshire to require the labeling of genetically modified foods or foods that contain GMOs.

Despite the well-funded efforts by folks like Gary Hirshberg who argue that “New Hampshire has the opportunity to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected above all,” legislators in New Hampshire do not seem to be buying it. As Rep. Jane Johnson, a Swanzey Republican said, “For New Hampshire to mandate labeling at this point in time is a rush to judgment.”

Johnson and her 11 colleagues who voted against the measure clearly realize that consumers deserve a debate based on science, not clever marketing slogans designed to drive market share to organic giants like Hirshberg’s Stonyfield Farms. Science, just like citizens, deserves protection and should not be vilified by a narrow and well-funded few seeking to advance their own agenda or line their pockets.

In the broad push to regulate biotechnology to the dustbin and move society toward the scientific standards of the 19th century, labeling has become the latest cause for activists to rally behind. For example, we are told that 92 percent of Americans support mandatory labels. This would be true if self-selected internet polls among an activist community are representative of public opinion.

However, a survey by the International Food Information Council last year found that only 24 percent of consumers support additional information requirements on labels and only 3 percent support separate labels for biotech foods.

Pollsters, statisticians and economists use the ideas of revealed and stated preferences to understand consumer behavior. A revealed preference analyzes what people actually do and the choices they make in the marketplace when presented with options. By contrast, stated preferences are based on what people say they would do.

Whenever information can be found on revealed preferences, stronger inferences and better policy can be developed. Fortunately, we have a food marketplace created by hardworking farmers that is abundant in its choices.

Most people choose foods with some biotech ingredients and – important for those who must avoid a certain ingredient or type of ingredient – there are significant market segments captured by the natural and organic suppliers. Just as there is a market for the thousands of items found on our store shelves, there is a market for information about those products.

Alarmist activists and labeling proponents would have us believe that modifying a plant through biotechnology processes creates some sort of novel Frankenfood. As a member of the Grange, an ag-based rural advocacy group established in 1867, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers and gardeners have been shaping the genetic destiny of the foods we eat for thousands of years.

All crops must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and to gain FDA approval, crops grown from biotech seeds must meet all the same requirements of traditionally bred plants. In addition, the food must be tested and found to be “as nutritious as foods from comparable traditionally bred plants.”

Moreover, independent scientific and regulatory bodies such as the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization find that these crops are just as safe as conventionally grown foods. The AMA has noted, “no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

More recently, economic studies show that mandatory labeling would increase food costs for consumers. Failed provisions in California and Washington state would have increased annual grocery bills by $400.

We should expect that prominent labels identifying GMO ingredients might affect the buying decisions for some consumers. In fact, it would be surprising if consumer behavior did not change. Where will these consumers go? Most likely they will choose substitutes.

Gone from the grocery store are the perfectly safe and extensively studied products that feed families like mine and have been on the market for decades. In their place will be politically correct, more expensive alternatives.

It would be shameful if we let scare tactics and half-truths drive up costs and reduce choices for consumers while lining the pockets of self-styled activists.

(Grace Boatright is legislative director of the National Grange, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, fraternal organization that advocates for rural America and agriculture.)


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