By MATTHEW D. ERNST
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — California voters had to decide yesterday whether all food sold in their state containing genetically modified (GMO) products would need to be labeled. Biotech labeling is also an issue in international trade, as shown by comments to the U.S. Trade Representative on Oct. 31.
The American Soybean Assoc. (ASA) comments oppose current trade regulations concerning biotech labeling by the European Union (EU). “Central to our concerns with EU biotech labeling and renewable energy regulations is the fact that they represent discriminatory non-tariff barriers to U.S. access to EU markets for soybeans and soybean products, and have no basis in scientific fact,” wrote ASA President and Nebraska farmer Steve Wellman.
The EU requires mandatory labeling of food containing GMO products. Animal feedstuffs containing GMO soy or corn may be exported into the EU, but new GMO varieties must be approved by European regulators.
A majority of food products manufactured in the United States, except certified organic foods, contain GMO soy or corn products. Changing food packaging and labels may be an involved and costly process.
Many, but not all, U.S. food interests oppose mandatory biotech labeling policy. According to a position paper by the Organic Trade Assoc. (OTA), “OTA supports the consumer’s right to know and to choose foods, fiber and personal care products based on environmental, personal health, religious, dietary or other preferences.
“Labeling of GMO seed, products grown from GMO seed or stock or made with ingredients and byproducts of GMO crops is necessary for farmer, supply chain and consumer choice.”
Proponents of biotech labeling, such as the OTA, note the United States is one of the few developed countries in the world that does not require GMO labeling. In addition to the EU, Japan and China also require labeling of foods containing GMOs.
The ASA also expressed concern the GMO issue could result in agricultural products being excluded from a possible U.S.-EU free trade agreement (FTA). “We understand other U.S. commercial interests may support negotiation of a U.S.-EU free trade agreement that does not comprehensively address the agriculture sector, on the basis that agriculture issues are too intractable and might prevent conclusion of an FTA,” wrote Wellman.
“We would strongly oppose this position. Agriculture is too important as an export industry for the U.S. to not address it in any new FTA negotiations.”
His comments came in a letter to L. Daniel Mullaney, assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Europe and the Middle East. The ASA letter came in response to the U.S. Trade Representative’s request, published in the Federal Register on Sept. 28, for views related to a potential FTA between the United States and EU.
An FTA is advocated by some pro-business groups in both Europe and here. An FTA would eliminate trade tariffs and increase regulatory compatibility between the United States and EU nations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates a complete elimination of tariffs would “increase combined U.S.-EU GDP (gross domestic product) by $180 billion in five years.”
Biotech labeling debates continue to be a significant part of food policy discussion in the United States. In June, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed an amendment to the Senate farm bill that would have required food products to have a label stating the presence of GMO ingredients. That amendment failed 26-73 in a vote on the Senate floor.
Biotech labeling has also become an issue during election season. This week, Californians voted on Proposition 37, a ballot measure would require food containing GMOs sold in California to be labeled (results not known at press time).
“California voters have the opportunity to insist on their fundamental right to make informed choices about the food they eat and feed their families,” said Matt McLean, president of OTA’s board of directors and founder/CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic.
But a study by two University of California-Davis agricultural economists criticized Proposition 37 on similar grounds as the ASA’s opposition to EU biotech labeling laws.
“Proposition 37 has no scientific basis, would be almost impossible to reverse and would implicitly ban a broad range of environmentally beneficial, profoundly effective technological options that major competitors will continue to embrace,” wrote the study authors.
They, like other opponents of mandatory GMO food labeling, recommend voluntary labeling of food products containing GMOs.