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Home » From the Commissioner

Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food (October 5, 2013)

We hear a lot of comments and concerns from people on both sides of the debate about GMO labeling and House Bill 660, a bill that would require labeling of genetically engineered foods and agricultural commodities. And we get a lot of questions about the department’s position on the bill, which was retained for study by the House Environment and Agriculture Committee. The sponsors have proposed amended language for the bill. Having failed to get Congress to mandate labeling, activists launched a national grassroots campaign, and New Hampshire is one of many states with active legislation. Each bill varies, but HB660 and several others in the Northeast would take effect only after a certain number of states pass similar laws.

Advocates assert the public right to know what is in their food. It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But what useful or verifiable information would the proposed labeling requirement provide? “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” labels would merely convey the information that the food contains or may contain some ingredient from a crop that was derived through biotechnology. By whatever preferred name—biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetically modified—this describes a broad category of plant breeding techniques or methods. Each engineered plant variety is different—the label only identifies the use of GE, not the genetic traits or characteristics of the crop.

HB660’s stated purpose is to “Assist consumers who are concerned about the potential effects of genetic engineering on their health, beliefs and the environment to make informed purchasing decisions;” and “Reduce and prevent consumer confusion and inadvertent deception…” Proponents most frequently express concerns about the risk of allergies to foods derived through genetic engineering. But the proposed labels will provide no useful information on specific genetic traits of the crop or crops.

In testimony before a House subcommittee last week, geneticist and biotechnology advocate Dr. Val Giddings told the committee that his son has life-threatening food allergies. He said that although opponents of agricultural biotechnology claim it increases allergy risks, the reality is the opposite. Foods derived from biotechnology are the only foods screened for allergenicity, and genetic engineering methods allow for more precise transfer of specific genes, resulting in reduced risks. Genetically modified non-allergenic varieties of popular food plants such as peanuts and soy are being developed.

Labeling advocates claim GE crops have resulted in increased pesticide use. Use of the herbicide glyphosate has increased along with crops engineered for resistance—but most often replacing more toxic and/or persistent herbicides. Insect-resistant crops are engineered to incorporate Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) proteins from a naturally occurring soil bacterium which has long been a popular insecticide with organic farmers and gardeners. Widespread adoption of Bt crop varieties has yielded dramatic reductions in insecticides used on crops and soil. These are examples of environmental benefits derived from biotech crops, with more to come. BASF hopes to soon market a potato engineered for late blight resistance through the insertion of two genes from a South American native potato.

Could some farmers do a better job of crop rotation and refuge management, especially in major commodity production regions? Certainly. But these stewardship concerns probably result more from drought and ethanol-fueled commodity prices than from use of biotechnology.

Agronomist Ev Thomas, in an editorial in the September Miner Institute Report  (p. 4) notes that 90% or more of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are biotech products. Sugar beets and canola are other typically biotech crops. Taken together, this means most of the vegetable oils and many sugars in our food supply are derived from GM crops. But processing of oils and sugars leaves no detectable proteins or DNA in the food product—so the genetically modified origin of the foods can not be detected or verified. What is the meaning of GM labels for these products?

HB660 exempts alcoholic beverages (GM content also undetectable) and food sold through restaurants and food service—where Americans now spend half or more of their food budgets annually. While retailers get loopholes from enforcement, farmers who produce and sell their own foods to the public get no loopholes. Farmers are the food marketers best positioned to engage in meaningful conversations with customers about how their crops are grown.

Meanwhile, GMO labeling would likely have a “skull and crossbones effect” on consumers, leading people to assume that “Genetically Engineered” indicates inferior, unsafe or unhealthy products—despite the lack of evidence over the past two decades that biotech crops have been widely grown and consumed. If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.

Few people challenge the extensive and growing use of genetic engineering in medicine and pharmaceuticals. Food and agriculture should not be asked to address today’s and future challenges with 100 year-old tools and science.

 Lorraine Merrill, Commissioner                                                                        lorrainemerrill

(reprinted from the Weekly Market Bulletin, Oct. 2, 2013)

 

SUBSCRIPTION NOTE:

The NH Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food Division of Agricultural Development compiles market information and publishes the Weekly Market Bulletin for the agriculture community. The Bulletin is the department’s ‘publication of record’ and includes appropriate industry notices, announcements, seasonal information and market survey data. Subscribers may advertise in the popular agricultural classified advertising at no charge. One-year subscriptions are $28 for delivery by U.S. Postal Service, or $22 for delivery by secure internet. Sign up for the Weekly Market Bulletin by calling the office at 271-2505 and providing a credit card for payment; or visit the office at 25 Capitol St., Concord; or mail in your request with a check. Be sure to provide your address, phone number, and if you are requesting an online subscription, an email address.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vol. 92                                                            Wednesday,  October 2                                           No. 32

 

 

 

From Your Commissioner…

 

Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

 

We hear a lot of comments and concerns from people on both sides of the debate about GMO labeling and House Bill 660, a bill that would require labeling of genetically engineered foods and agricultural commodities. And we get a lot of questions about the department’s position on the bill, which was retained for study by the House Environment and Agriculture Committee. The sponsors have proposed amended language for the bill. Having failed to get Congress to mandate labeling, activists launched a national grassroots campaign, and New Hampshire is one of many states with active legislation. Each bill varies, but HB660 and several others in the Northeast would take effect only after a certain number of states pass similar laws.

Advocates assert the public right to know what is in their food. It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But what useful or verifiable information would the proposed labeling requirement provide? “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” labels would merely convey the information that the food contains or may contain some ingredient from a crop that was derived through biotechnology. By whatever preferred name—biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetically modified—this describes a broad category of plant breeding techniques or methods. Each engineered plant variety is different—the label only identifies the use of GE, not the genetic traits or characteristics of the crop.

HB660’s stated purpose is to “Assist consumers who are concerned about the potential effects of genetic engineering on their health, beliefs and the environment to make informed purchasing decisions;” and “Reduce and prevent consumer confusion and inadvertent deception…” Proponents most frequently express concerns about the risk of allergies to foods derived through genetic engineering. But the proposed labels will provide no useful information on specific genetic traits of the crop or crops.

In testimony before a House subcommittee last week, geneticist and biotechnology advocate Dr. Val Giddings told the committee that his son has life-threatening food allergies. He said that although opponents of agricultural biotechnology claim it increases allergy risks, the reality is the opposite. Foods derived from biotechnology are the only foods screened for allergenicity, and genetic engineering methods allow for more precise transfer of specific genes, resulting in reduced risks. Genetically modified non-allergenic varieties of popular food plants such as peanuts and soy are being developed.

Labeling advocates claim GE crops have resulted in increased pesticide use. Use of the herbicide glyphosate has increased along with crops engineered for resistance—but most often replacing more toxic and/or persistent herbicides. Insect-resistant crops are engineered to incorporate Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) proteins from a naturally occurring soil bacterium which has long been a popular insecticide with organic farmers and gardeners. Widespread adoption of Bt crop varieties has yielded dramatic reductions in insecticides used on crops and soil. These are examples of environmental benefits derived from biotech crops, with more to come. BASF hopes to soon market a potato engineered for late blight resistance through the insertion of two genes from a South American native potato.

Could some farmers do a better job of crop rotation and refuge management, especially in major commodity production regions? Certainly. But these stewardship concerns probably result more from drought and ethanol-fueled commodity prices than from use of biotechnology.

Agronomist Ev Thomas, in an editorial in the September Miner Institute Report), notes that 90% or more of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are biotech products. Sugar beets and canola are other typically biotech crops. Taken together, this means most of the vegetable oils and many sugars in our food supply are derived from GM crops. But processing of oils and sugars leaves no detectable proteins or DNA in the food product—so the genetically modified origin of the foods can not be detected or verified. What is the meaning of GM labels for these products?

HB660 exempts alcoholic beverages (GM content also undetectable) and food sold through restaurants and food service—where Americans now spend half or more of their food budgets annually. While retailers get loopholes from enforcement, farmers who produce and sell their own foods to the public get no loopholes. Farmers are the food marketers best positioned to engage in meaningful conversations with customers about how their crops are grown.

Meanwhile, GMO labeling would likely have a “skull and crossbones effect” on consumers, leading people to assume that “Genetically Engineered” indicates inferior, unsafe or unhealthy products—despite the lack of evidence over the past two decades that biotech crops have been widely grown and consumed. If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up.

Few people challenge the extensive and growing use of genetic engineering in medicine and pharmaceuticals. Food and agriculture should not be asked to address today’s and future challenges with 100 year-old tools and science.

 

Lorraine Merrill, Commissioner

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