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Anti-GMO movement builds

This week the Connecticut legislature became the first in the Union to pass a law requiring food with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients to be labeled. Four other states must pass a compatible law before it kicks in, but similar legislation is underway elsewhere. Some 340,000 voters have already signed petitions that could put GMO labeling on the ballot in Washington State this fall. And in Vermont, that state's House of Representatives has passed a GMO labeling bill 99 to 42.

"I can tell you with absolute certainty, that the people of Vermont want to know what's in their food," said the state's Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who in May introduced an amendment to the Senate's 2013 farm bill that would have protected states like Connecticut and Vermont from lawsuits challenging GMO labeling. "All over this country people are concerned about the quality of the food they are ingesting and giving to their kids."

Sanders' amendment was soundly defeated, by a vote of 71 to 27. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow argued against it, saying that such labeling isn't based on science.

"I believe we must rely on the FDA science-based recommendations," Stabenow said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration has determined there's no material difference between GMO and non-GMO food ingredients.

Sanders views it differently.

"This is a pretty simple issue, and the issue is do the American people have a right to know what's in the food they are eating?" he said.

When it comes to how GMO labeling might affect agriculture, it may not be so simple.

Neither the Connecticut law nor a similar ballot initiative in California that was defeated last year would directly affect farmers who plant Roundup Ready soybeans or corn with stacked genetic traits. In fact, both the Connecticut law and the California proposal wouldn't apply to meat from animals that aren't genetically modified, no matter what kind of feed the livestock ate.

Ultimately, "it depends on how many consumers care," said Dermot Hayes, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University who co-authored an academic study in 2005 on "Genetically Modified Crops: Their Market and Welfare Impact."

So far, in a national market without GMO labeling, U.S. consumers who buy non-GMO foods must pay the cost of segregating the non-GMO crops that go into them, Hayes pointed out.  Even with labeling, that  might not change much, unless the percentage of consumers who are concerned about GMOs goes above 50%. Then, there might be more pressure to segregate the genetically modified crops. That's the case now in the European Union, where non-GMO crops move through the bulk handling system, Hayes told Agriculture.com.

Hayes agrees with a group of economists in California that a key issue is what tolerance is allowed for traces of GMO material in nonGMO foods. The Connecticut law appears to set that tolerance at nine-tenths of one percent, the same level as in the EU. The California initiative, Proposition 37, would have started with a 0.5% tolerance and gone to zero-tolerance.

The economists who looked at Proposition 37 saw this as a potential problem.

"…in Japan, a country much more averse to biotech foods than the U.S., the legal labeling tolerance level for the accidental presence of GM ingredients in non-GM food is 5% of the top three ingredients," pointed out Colin A. Carter and a group of economists with the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California. (The title of their paper is "California’s Proposition 37: Effects of Mandatory Labeling of GM Food.)

Due to the zero tolerance and the risk of being sued, "food companies would have an incentive to use alternative ingredients such as imported palm oil to replace soybean or canola oil, despite potential health problems associated with palm oil and environmental con¬cerns due to palm oil expansion in Asia," the economists wrote.

Hayes contends that for corn, low tolerance levels could be hard to achieve.

"Corn pollen blows in the wind. On a gusty day, it can blow  ten miles. It's really hard to keep tolerance under one percent," he said.

That would be more of a problem for organic farmers, except that USDA organic standards have no threshold for allowable levels of GMO material. In California, at least, Carter and his colleagues argued that organic farmers would have been exempt from testing and potential litigation over any GMO material in their products.

The Connecticut law doesn't seem to deal directly with that issue. It does exempt products sold at roadside stands and farmers markets as well as food served in restaurants and alcoholic beverages.

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