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'Foodies' a formidable force

Biotech industry backed into corner over GMO labelling

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It's tough to tell whether it was big money, common sense or both that quashed California's Proposition 37 in the U.S. election that would have required most genetically engineered foods sold in that state to be labelled.

In the end, 53 per cent of the voters said no to the proposition. But it wasn't an easy win.

In the final weeks of the campaign, which matched the presidential race for being neck-and-neck and cluttered with propaganda, agribusiness poured $45 million into convincing the electorate a vote for Proposition 37 was a vote for higher grocery bills with no scientifically measurable improvement in food safety.

That tops the $42 million Mitt Romney's campaign reportedly spent in the final push to put him in the White House. Proponents of labelling mustered a meagre $8 million.

There's no denying the labelling law as proposed was cumbersome. It would have required foods manufactured with genetically modified ingredients to carry labels on the package. Whole foods such as sweet corn could be labelled on the shelf. But there was a long list of exemptions, including meat, alcohol, certified organic products and products that did not intentionally contain genetically engineered crops.

However, it is equally tough to argue this was a clear victory for the agri-food sector, which now uses ingredients from genetically engineered crops -- chiefly corn and soybeans -- in the majority of processed food products on grocery shelves.

Unlike with the presidential candidates, there was no conciliatory concession to the winner and no talk about making nice and working together for the common good. Just a declaration of all-out war over whether consumers have a right to know not just what is in their food, but how it got there.

"We showed that there is a food movement in the United States, and it is strong, vibrant and too powerful to stop. We always knew we were the underdogs, and the underdogs nearly took the day. Dirty money and dirty tactics may have won this skirmish, but they will not win the war," the Right to Know California Campaign said in an election-night release. Remember, nearly half the state's voters agree.

If you think that's just California, the Right to Know campaign points out similar labelling laws already exist in 61 countries.

The underlying question is, why, nearly 15 years after genetically modified crops first appeared, is the industry behind this technology still on the defensive?

It's not that the food industry is opposed to labelling. We are told when our foods are trans fat-free, low-fat, natural, or high in fibre because the manufacturers perceive these traits as a competitive marketing advantage.

In the early days of GMOs, companies seeking regulatory approvals celebrated the fact genetically modified crops weren't substantively different than their conventional counterparts -- because it meant they didn't have to be labelled.

But really, it's a problem. These crops don't taste different, they don't look different. They aren't any healthier for you. The best the industry can claim is there is no proof they are bad for you.

Yet in many consumers' minds, they are different because they contain foreign genes put there through unnatural means. The industry's reluctance to come clean with labelling reinforces the notion it is hiding something sinister.

Early claims the herbicide-tolerant crops would result in less pesticide use carried some cachet with the environmentally conscious consumer, but those claims have been all but silenced by the emergence of resistant superweeds, which has led to more herbicide use, not less.

Likewise for claims these crops will help feed the world. Production systems that prevent farm-saved seed and require herbicide weed control are too expensive for most of the world's farmers, who are small-scale and living in impoverished countries.

Scientists are working on a number of traits that provide tangible consumer benefits, such as a genetically altered tomato that unclogs the plaque from arteries, or a yeast gene that makes for a frothier beer. That's heady stuff, but none of it is even close to being commercially available.

If the pattern of bringing farmer-friendly traits to market is any indication, the cost of development and achieving regulatory approval will nix any trait that doesn't promise massmarket appeal.

So there it sits. The foodies are evolving into a force as influential on policy as environmentalists. The biotech industry is backed into a corner, fighting expensive skirmishes while slowly losing the war.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com .

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 B5

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