Washington Insider-- Thursday

NYT Takes on GMO "Myths"

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

White House: Obama Would Sign GMO Food Labeling Bill

Should a pending GMO food labeling bill up for a House vote this week reach President Barack Obama's desk, he would sign the already passed Senate measure (S 764), the White House said.

"While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers' interest in knowing more about their food, including whether it includes ingredients from genetically engineered crops," White House spokesperson Katie Hill said.

“We look forward to tracking its progress in the House and anticipate the president would sign it in its current form," Hill said.

The package moved to the House floor on a closed rule, with the House Rules Committee action preventing any further amendments. House Rules voted 3-5 to reject a motion by committee member Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., to consider his amendment that would have required the information about GMO ingredients be placed on food product packages. By voice vote, the committee also rejected a motion by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to allow floor amendments.

McConnell Downbeat on Prospects for Lame-Duck TPP Vote

Chances for lame-duck consideration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact are "pretty slim," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said July 12. Meanwhile, the White House said that TPP meets the standards laid out in the Democratic Party platform, which calls for strict, enforceable labor and environmental provisions in any new trade deals.

Both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates oppose TPP, which McConnell acknowledges poses a political challenge should Congress try to take up the matter.

On his plans for bringing up TPP, McConnell was non-committal. "I haven't made that call yet, but I have to say the chances are pretty slim that we would be looking at that this year," he said to reporters after the Republican policy luncheon in the Capitol.

McConnell also told reporters that in his view the pact must be opened up and renegotiated. Parts of TPP dealing with biologic drug patents and the tobacco industry are opposed by several Republican lawmakers, including McConnell himself and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

McConnell reiterated that trade promotion authority continues through the next presidency and the agreement doesn't die at the end of the year. "It's still out there to be considered or to be modified after the first of the year," McConnell said.

Washington Insider: NYT Takes on GMO “Myths”

Most of the large urban dailies have a hard time with GMOs. For example, the New York Times often carries reports that treat food technology about the same as food contamination, but then also carries reports by scientists and others who declare over and over that GMOs are not health threats.

So, it was interesting to note an article in the Times Science section on Tuesday that hammered on a number of what it called myths. It noted that a “label” bill that is likely to pass the Congress may fall short of ending widespread confusion about the role of GMOs in the food system.

While the House bill would move Americans closer to what they have said they want: more transparency about how the genes of foods they are about to eat have been manipulated, the Times says. Still, it concludes that dispelling confusion over genetically modified organisms may be difficult for any labeling program. The article takes on several specific “myths” it says it has encountered.

For starters, the Times says it is not true that GMO-free oats are better than the alternative, largely because there are no genetically modified oats on the U.S. market. “Some flavored oatmeals may have been made with genetically modified ingredients. But as seen with the proliferation of labels on fat-free or gluten-free products — like water — that never contained fat or gluten, the GMO-free label does not mean a genetically engineered version of that product exists.”

Another misconception the article tags is the idea that “the new labels will make it uniformly easy to identify what has been genetically engineered.” However, consumers may need to scan a package to see if an ingredient was genetically modified, and even then they are unlikely to learn which traits were altered.

Under the proposed legislation, “manufacturers would not be required to provide information on how a food was modified or why. That a certain Hawaiian papaya, for instance, was protected against a virus that threatened to destroy the crop…would be impossible to tell from a generic label indicating that it had been “produced with genetic engineering.” You also wouldn’t know, say, that the soy lecithin in your ice cream was made from soybeans endowed with a bacterial gene that lets them thrive even when sprayed with a widely used weed killer.”

The article also lists as a misconception the idea that GMO labels highlight a documented health risk. Actually, they don’t, the Time says. “These are not warning labels. The scientific consensus is that genetically engineered crops are as safe to eat as other crops.”

Another idea flagged is that genetically modified wheat may be responsible for gluten sensitivity. But, genetically modified wheat is not sold to the public, the Times says in spite of the fact that “Countless websites, blog posts and messages on Twitter blame genetically modified wheat for the increase in gluten sensitivity. The fundamental hole in this argument is that genetically modified wheat is not sold to the public.”

The article takes pains to identify that what is covered by both the Vermont labeling law and the proposed national one are products that have been altered using specific forms of biotechnology that allow for the transfer of genetic material from one species to another or the insertion of synthetic or heavily modified DNA into an organism’s genetic code. “Genetic modification” by traditional methods of plant selection is not covered. In fact, the Times says “if no DNA from another organism is added, then it is not genetically modified under the rules for new labels.”

So, the myths and claims go on and on. For example, “last year, the Chipotle restaurant chain ran its “G-M-Over It” even though only its soy cooking oil and the soy and corn ingredients in tortillas had come from genetically modified crops. Now, “almost all soybeans and most corn grown in the United States are modified so farmers can spray them with glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup) to kill weeds.” The article cites agronomists who note that Chipotle’s replacement ingredients also come from crops cultivated with weed killers — just different ones.”

So, what does the NYT conclude? First, that even if new label legislation is passed and signed by the President, the subject is so complex that the new labels and their background support information are unlikely to end consumers’ confusion. In addition, the article implies that many producers and retailers likely will continue to make claims that add to consumer uncertainty—and, that the new labels likely will not add much, if anything at all to consumer safety.

Still, one benefit of such a law likely will be the prevention of a proliferation of competing state laws, each with its home-town exceptions, even as individual retailers continue to tout the “superiority” of its process and products—and, to take advantage of growing consumer confusion, Washington Insider believes.

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