The biotechnology riddle

By Marshall Matz

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



The debate over agriculture biotechnology (aka genetic engineering (GE), genetic modification (GM), and GM organisms (GMOs)) was front and center in July.  

First, the White House issued an Executive Memorandum (“the Memorandum”) entitled “Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products.”  The Memorandum, issued by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Environmental Quality, as well as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, updates the process for expediting biotech approvals.  By doing so, it also demonstrated White House support for the safety and importance of agriculture biotechnology.

The Memorandum calls on the relevant federal agencies - FDA, USDA, and EPA - to update the federal government's Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology.  The modernization effort will apply to biotechnology products defined as “products developed through genetic engineering or the targeted or in vitro manipulation of genetic information of organisms, including plants, animals, and microbes.” 

Together we can feed the Bees"

The Memorandum was intended not only to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of the federal regulatory process, but also as a statement of confidence in the science of biotechnology. It was released on the heels of President Obama's statement last year that “investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet's most pressing agricultural problems.”

In the middle of July, the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 by a vote of 275-150 to preempt all state legislation that requires labeling of GMOs, and codify in federal law FDA's current voluntary program for labeling of GE foods.  Under the House-passed legislation, no state or political subdivision of a state may directly or indirectly establish any requirement regarding the labeling of foods produced using biotechnology sold in interstate commerce. 

The legislation would also make mandatory an FDA consultation process which is currently voluntary, i.e. developers of GMOs intended as food would be required to submit a notification to the FDA before the product goes to market.  FDA would then require a label should it determine the product represents a material difference from a comparable non-GMO food.  Further, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service would be allowed to establish a program to certify non-GMO food.

Speaking against the bill, Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), a respected leader on domestic and international nutrition issues, noted “This debate is not about the safety of GMOs.  It's about the consumers' right to know… This debate is not about whether GMOs are good or bad. I consume GMOs. My kids consume GMOs. This is about consumers' right to know what's in the food they eat.”

Supporters of the legislation, however, say the issue is not about a consumer's right to know, but whether a state, or all of the states, should be allowed to enact their own labeling requirements, resulting in a patchwork of different labeling schemes around the country.  They also argue that the label is the wrong place to communicate such information.

Further, Dr. Nina Fedoroff, a world renowned plant scientist writing in the Wall Street Journal on July 13, made the case that labeling GM foods “is simply a ploy to make consumers worry…labeling tells the consumer absolutely nothing about the safety or nutritional quality of the food.”

The bill now goes to the Senate where it faces a very uncertain future.   The Administration and key Senate Democrats seem open to preempting the states, but are wary of a totally voluntary information system. To date, no Senate Democrat has come forward to sponsor the legislation.

Finally, on July 28, to coincide with President Obama's trip to Africa, the White House released a Fact Sheet on Partnering with Africa on Food Security and Climate Change Adaptation.  In addition to noting that “the U.S. Government has elevated food security to the top of the global agenda,” it embraces “climate-resilient seeds,” “drought tolerant seeds” and “new high-yield seed technologies” to “help increase yields and improve incomes.”  These are, of course, generic terms that cover both hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds since some African countries allow GE while others countries do not.

So where does this leave us?  Is it a matter of adding useful information to a label, or are there deeper issues?

The bottom line is that when it comes to the public acceptance of agriculture biotechnology, there is still a major disconnect between the scientific community's support of biotechnology and the public's skepticism; therein lies the riddle. Biotechnology, and all agriculture technology, is needed to produce enough food to feed an exploding world population, but the public, or a vocal minority of the public, is nervous and seeking greater information.

The solution to the biotechnology riddle may therefore be in two parts:

1. Preempt state food labeling legislation by reaffirming the FDA's and USDA's responsibility for the content of labels on food.      

2.  Use a digital platform, which is already in the works, to provide consumers with all of the information that interests them, including detailed information about biotechnology traits and whether they have nutritional implications.  Beginning this fall, Hershey's will be the first company to roll out what is expected to be an industry-wide smart label using QR (Quick Response) codes on product packages that shoppers can scan to get a detailed list of ingredients and whether or not they are GM, among other things.

Using smartphones to provide more access to product information is not a new idea. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has long called for bar code scanners to allow consumers who want more information about their food. (The Vilsapp.)  It is very difficult for businesses that are consumer-oriented to be against a consumer's desire to know more about a food product.  That is the point Rep. McGovern was making.  However, food packages do not have very much space, and there is a precise criterion for information it contains.  The smartphone app or a digital platform is a way of finding that balance, because it creates a process by which a great deal of info can be supplied to a consumer who is interested, but doesn't suggest that there is anything wrong with a product.

Keep your eyes open for the National Academy of Sciences comprehensive report addressing food safety, environmental, social, economic, regulatory, and other aspects of GE crops.  It is currently being drafted, and is expected to be released early 2016.

Marshall Matz specializes in food and agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  He can be reached at mmatz@ofwlaw.com

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