Officials with America’s top food safety agencies strongly reaffirmed the safety and value of crops developed with biotech traits last week at a hearing in Washington. But the officials, under questioning by lawmakers, admitted that government agencies have done a poor job of relaying to the American public the information about the safety and benefits of biotech crops.
"This is a very challenging issue, and I think that general decline in confidence in all parts of government plays a role," William Jordan of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told a U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on biotech, which was webcast. "We at EPA believe that doing our work transparently and seeking outside experts is the way that we can demonstrate the safety."
That response did not satisfy North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Ag Committee. "You say that, but what people hear is blah, blah, blah," she said.
The North Dakota Democrat compared the movement against biotech crops to other unfounded concerns, such as safety of vaccines or pasteurized milk, which persist despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
Heitkamp challenged Jordan, along with officials at the hearing from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to work much harder at informing consumers about the safety of biotech crops, which are often called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Despite strong scientific evidence, biotech opponents have been far more successful at using social media and other avenues to spread fear about the technology, the senator said.
Science is strong
"We seem to be losing the fight on this," Heitkamp said. "I believe the science is so strong in this area that these products will not have an adverse health effect. But the data you are presenting is not accessible to the general public, so it’s easier to say this is bad than say this is good."
The Senate hearing on biotechnology was spurred by a movement in Congress to prevent a patchwork of state-by-state labeling rules for foods made with GMOs. The first, Vermont’s GMO labeling law, is set to take effect in mid-2016 unless it is overturned in a court challenge or stopped by national legislation.
Earlier this year, the U.S. House vote passed a bill that would create a FDA-run labeling standard to impose mandatory labels on foods made with GMOs only if the food from biotech crops is materially different and would pose a health risk.
The House measure would also create a voluntary GMO-free certification program for food companies that want to provide those products.
Senators at the hearing expressed optimism about getting a similar measure passed by the end of 2016. "I share the concern of doing business if 50 states have 50 different standards, and quite frankly, it won’t work," said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Safe and valuable
Along with expressing the safety of foods made with biotech crops, lawmakers, regulators, a doctor and a dairy farmer highlighted the value of the technology.
"Agriculture biotechnology has become a valuable tool in ensuring the success of the American farmer in meeting the challenge of increasing yield in a more efficient, safe and responsible manner," said Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who chairs the ag committee.
The EPA’s Jordan noted that biotech plants with built-in resistance to pests, such as Bt corn, have reduced pesticide applications by "many millions of pounds" and have helped the environment.
Joanna Lidback, a Vermont dairy farmer, told the lawmakers that biotech crops are essential to sustaining her family’s dairy. "I believe that biotech varieties improve efficiency and productivity of farming in general. "I also believe that biotechnology enables us to lessen the environmental impact that growing can have because less fertilizer and pesticides are used, which in turn means fewer times over the soil with equipment, thereby cutting down on soil erosion and compaction as well as carbon footprint," the Vermont Farm Bureau member said.
In addition, Lidback said biotech crops also keep feed more abundant and affordable for the family’s 50-cow dairy.
Disappointed in law
Lidback said she was disappointed that Vermont passed a bill to impose mandatory labels on food made with GMOs. The law is full of contradictions, she noted, and will only serve to raise food prices and confuse consumers.
"I generally do not believe in paying the higher premium for these foods because they provide no added nutritional or other health benefits and environmental benefits are arguable," Lidback said. "With a growing family and a growing farm business, we have lots of other places to spend our hard-earned money."