NEW ORLEANS (DTN) -- Dealing with the biotech labeling bills in Congress is the most important issue facing agriculture right now, leaders from the American Soybean Association said Thursday.
Richard Wilkins, a Delaware farmer and president of the ASA this year, stressed soybean growers refuse to support any legislation that would unnecessarily taint biotechnology with a mandatory biotech label.
"We cannot afford to allow the promise of biotechnology and advanced breeding methods to be dragged down by misperception and misinformation," Wilkins said. "Over 20 years of research, testing and field use prove that GMOs are safe and they enhance our sustainability. It's a fact beyond dispute."
The Senate Agriculture Committee advanced a bill out of committee on Tuesday that would block states from establishing their own biotech labeling standards. The bill also would create a voluntary labeling program at USDA for foods containing ingredients from genetically engineered crops. The Ag Committee bill, drafted by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., advanced on a 14-6 vote with three Democrats joining Republicans to approve the bill. The bill would block a Vermont biotech labeling law from taking effect on July.
"ASA is extremely supportive of the chairman's work on this bill," Wilkins said. He added, "It's clear he knows the impact of a patchwork of state laws like Vermont's would have on farmers' freedom to operate and on consumer food costs."
Countering the Senate Ag Committee bill is legislation introduced on Wednesday by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Jon Tester of Montana and Dianne Feinstein of California that would mandate labels for foods including ingredients from genetically engineered crops. The bill would authorize the Food and Drug Administration to create a logo to reflect the presence of ingredients from biotech crops.
ASA leaders cited a study last week by the Corn Refiners Association showing that if the Vermont legislation goes into effect, it could cost consumers as much as $1,050 in higher food prices.
Wade Cowan, a Texas farmer and chairman of ASA, said the fight over biotechnology in the agriculture sector is at a tipping point. Cowan said farmers need to better reach out to senators about biotechnology. With that, he held up a sign "Help Protect American Farmers from Costly GMO Labeling Mandates" with a phone number to tell Congress to support biotechnology.
"This particular issue of GMO labeling is one in which all of us must get involved," Cowan said.
Cowan quoted the Center for Food Safety, which has stated that once foods are labeled as GMO, then people should organize to get consumers not to buy those foods. Wilkins added once a biotech label is in place, then critics of the technology would put pressure on retailers, food companies and consumers to reformulate and exclude biotech products.
"It's just going to be disastrous and it's something we can't allow to happen," Wilkins said.
Cowan said the phone operation will allow farmers to ask questions about labeling and also help put farmers in contact with their senators to talk to them about the importance of biotechnology.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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