WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2016 - Hillary Clinton looks to be a potential champion of agricultural biotechnology who already has a basic understanding of the arguments for genetic engineering, according to private comments she made during the primary campaign.

The hacked emails released by WikiLeaks show that Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm and the Just Label It coalition, repeatedly pressed Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to get Clinton to come out in favor of mandatory GMO labeling. At one point Hirshberg raised concerns about remarks she had made at an event in Colorado, apparently in late 2015. “It is clear that she does not have a consistent message” on GMOs, Hirshberg wrote.

Hirshberg’s complaint prompted Podesta to try to figure where the offending remarks occurred. An aide produced a partial transcript of an event in Boulder where a questioner demanded to know from Clinton why “it’s so hard to label foods with GMOs” and “why it’s so hard to take on Monsanto.”

She responded by giving a short and fairly accurate primer on the subject. She immediately pointed out that support for the technology goes well beyond Monsanto and includes “most of the big agricultural interests, who actually produce the corn, the soybeans, the wheat, are using genetically modified seeds.” Those groups “argue that they are doing it to get a better yield. They are doing it to avoid destruction by pests,” she said. “They are doing it because it makes sense to do so, especially if there’s drought conditions and the like.”

(Sharp-eyed critics will note that there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market.)

Clinton went to say that while Monsanto and other biotech companies are doing the bioengineering work, farm groups are leading the “real political battle” against mandatory labeling out of fear that growers could lose their market for biotech crops. “They don’t want it labeled, because they think it’s not a fair assessment of the quality of their product,” Clinton went on.

Clinton tried to straddle both sides of the labeling issue. She told the questioner that she was opposed to preempting state GMO labeling laws, something Congress would eventually do in 2016. But Clinton also said she supported voluntary labeling and the idea of embedding information about biotechnology in product bar codes, the alternative favored by agribusiness and the food industry. The latter was the labeling method that lawmakers would make mandatory in the law enacted this summer.

Clinton made no effort to reconcile her opposition to preempting state labeling laws with her support for voluntary labelling. Still, she went on to make a case for the use of biotechnology to address global food challenges:

“I'll put on a hat that I don’t wear, which is a hat of the agricultural interests, and they will say, ‘We have developed drought-resistant seed. It would be a lifesaver. It would create produce and grains that could be grown in Africa. And we can’t get them to those farmers because the Europeans, who still have a big influence because of their colonial relationships, are so against GMO. But the traditional grains are no longer growable. The soil, the drought conditions are not conducive. So people are going to starve. And with climate change creating more desertification and more drought, it's going to become a bigger and bigger problem.’ 

“So this whole issue, there are some equities on the other side that we have to sort through as well. So that's why I (inaudible) for voluntary labeling.”

As it turned out, Hirshberg’s main success with Clinton was to get the campaign to send out a tweet in March 2016 supporting the successful Democratic filibuster against the preemption bill that Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., had brought to the Senate floor.

Kathleen Merrigan, a former deputy secretary who represented Clinton at a Farm Foundation forum in Washington Oct. 19, assured the audience that Clinton supported biotechnology and that she recognized that Congress had ended the debate over GMO labeling with passage of the new disclosure law that USDA is in the process of implementing. “Congress has written the law of the land,” she said.

Merrigan, who recently met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on unspecified transition-related matters, also suggested that Clinton would continue a broad review that the Obama administration has started of the government’s “coordinated framework” for regulating biotechnology. “I think people should pay attention to that,” she said.

The aim of the project, launched in July 2015, is to update the regulatory system to clarify how products of gene editing will be treated and to address how agencies will oversee products such as mosquitoes genetically developed to fight the Zika virus.

“There are a lot of new technologies coming about. We have to keep up with the science,” Merrigan said, saying she was personally interested in the potential benefits of the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9.

“What if we could go into the genome and clip out the part of the gene that has peanuts carry aflatoxin (a cancer-causing chemical)? Wouldn’t that be great?”

Donald Trump’s top agricultural adviser, Sam Clovis, responded at the forum that he generally agreed with Merrigan’s comments on biotechnology. But he seems to be interested in seeing another crop trait: “Im waiting for the day when we put a second ear on a stalk of corn… imagine the ability to produce if we were able though bioengineering to get that second ear of corn on a stalk?”


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