Scientists tout benefits of GMOs at hearing

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2014

Agricultural biotechnology offers opportunities to improve the nutrition, abundance and safety of food, and has been inaccurately maligned in the United States and abroad, said witnesses at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing yesterday.

Three university professors and a dairy farmer spoke in front of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture on the societal benefits of genetic engineering, which include both advances in traditional breeding and transgenic technologies.

“It’s time to get some good information out there; there’s been an attempt to demonize hybrid genetic engineering without, I think, fully understanding the benefits we’ve had for thousands of years,” said ranking member Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). Witnesses and members of the subpanel spoke unanimously in favor of genetic engineering and denigrated state-led efforts to label genetically modified foods.

“This stigma has long been a factor in Europe, and we see the same pattern emerging in the U.S.,” said David Just, a professor and director of the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University. Just later added that European lawmakers had “blood on their hands” for the way they had strictly restricted the importation of transgenic crops into their countries.

European environmental ministers voted last month to give member states the ability to opt out of regulations surrounding genetically modified foods, a move that is expected to open the gate for engineered crops in the European Union (Greenwire, June 16).

The idea of modifying plants to suit societal needs is not new, said Olga Bolden-Tiller, an associate professor and chairwoman of the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tuskegee University. Tuskegee researchers have developed a sweet potato with up to 500 percent more protein content.

“If consumed by individuals in areas where protein sources are scarce, these individuals will have at their fingertips a food source that can mean the difference between malnutrition and survival,” she said.

Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School and a promoter of genetically engineered crops in Africa, said that opponents do not use scientific evidence to back their claims.

“They need to be held at the same standard of ethics” as the scientific community, where conclusions are peer reviewed before they are published, he said.

Joanna Lidback, a Vermont dairy farmer and blogger who testified on behalf of the Agric-Mark Dairy Cooperative and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said that the only non-genetically modified feed alternative is certified organic feed, which costs more than double the price of conventional feed.

Although she feared that her support of genetically modified crops in Vermont — a state that passed a labeling law in May and is preparing to fight it in court — would alienate her from friends and customers, Lidback said she had found that many support her views.

“I am proud of how far the American farmer has come,” said Lidback.

The Center for Food Safety submitted comments to the subcommittee, stating that genetically modified crops have encouraged negative environmental consequences, like contributing to the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds while providing relatively small yield increases.

“On balance, the negative impacts of GE have been substantial, while the benefits have been small and equivocal, and usually better and more cost-effectively addressed by other available methods and technologies,” wrote Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture with the Center for Food Safety.

Three states have passed laws to label genetically modified foods, and many more have introduced legislation or a ballot initiative.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) in April introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” (H.R. 4432), which would block state and local initiatives from carrying out the labeling law. The bill would require the Food and Drug Administration to assess a food’s safety.

“I think of it as a bill that’s trying to feed the next billion people,” said Pompeo at the American Soybean Association’s board meeting yesterday. Unlike nutrition labels that state information on sugar and fat content, genetically modified foods do not alert consumers of health risks. The scientific literature does not indicate adverse health effects from genetically modified foods.

Though Pompeo’s bill has more than two dozen co-sponsors, he claimed more of his colleagues have said they support the legislation. He explained, “I’ve got lots of members, frankly, who are happy to go down the path alongside me but aren’t willing to put their name on the co-sponsor sheet because they know that they’ll get 5,000 phone calls.”

The Center for Food Safety, along with the Environmental Working Group, the Just Label It campaign and Food Policy Action, will hold an event today with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream co-founder Jerry Greenfield and Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.) to protest the Pompeo bill, which they’ve dubbed the Deny Americans’ Right to Know, or DARK, Act.