For Guidance On GMO Debate, Some Food Lessons From First Graders

SARA WYANT

WASHINGTON, D.C.
   As many of you know, I live on a lake in rural Missouri when I’m not in Washington, D.C. or flying someplace around the world. My husband and I decided several years ago that, if I was going to write about how legislative and regulatory issues impact Rural America, it made sense to live in Rural America. (Plus, we love it!) 
   Living outside of a small town with about 3,000 people provides me with a much different and very important lens in which to view pressing national issues and events, compared to what we might see if we lived only in our condo near Capitol Hill.  
   So I thought it was insightful when our local paper recently asked a group of first graders to explain how to cook a turkey – just prior to Thanksgiving dinner. The assignment was a chance for them to explore the use of the words “first, next, and last,” but in the process they told us an important lesson about how they viewed food. 
   The majority of those first graders started by saying, “first, I would shoot the turkey.” 
   Think about that for a just a second. Even at their tender young ages, they knew something that a lot of their urban neighbors did not – that turkeys grow up in the wild and can be hunted for dinner. Food does not magically appear in the grocery store. 
   Next, they talked about seasoning and cooking the turkey, albeit for often very unrealistic times. One suggested a whopping 12 minutes! OK, we’re not letting him do the cooking…..
   And last, they talked about serving the turkey with lots of good side dishes like corn, beans and potatoes. Seemed like they figured out the sequence pretty well for a holiday dinner, even if their timing wasn’t exactly right!
   Even more important than what they said was what they didn’t say. 
   Not a one mentioned genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), terms like “gluten-free,” and “free range” or even “organic.” Of course, one could argue that these terms did not perhaps fit into the sequence of “first, next or last,” but I think it’s simpler than that. They wanted a good meal that was simple and affordable. 
   That’s a common theme I hear when talking to local shoppers who are buying food or even those who are working with local food pantries to donate food to those in need. People don’t really care about labels. They want quality food that they can serve their families. They don’t mind hunting for their food and they don’t mind shopping for bargains. They like choices. However, they don’t like people who try to impose their own values on what they can and cannot buy.
   GMOs labeling on food
   So with this type of mentality emerging from the nation’s heartland, the debate over whether or not foods should be labeled as containing ingredients from plants that have been genetically modified seems a bit blown out of proportion. 
   The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that foods containing GMOs are safe and don't present any greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. 
   However, the state of Vermont (which is also very rural but full of activist groups) passed a law that said “yes,” GMO ingredients should be labeled on every product containing such, except for a long list of very Vermont-ish exemptions like dairy (from cows consuming GMOs), beer and wine. 
   That law is scheduled to go into effect in July and food manufacturers have been in a tizzy to stop it. Led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, food companies and farm organizations, industry groups hoped to enact a federal law that would pre-empt states from trying to enact their own state labeling schemes – similar to a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, and passed by the House earlier this year. 
   However, efforts to insert compromise legislation like this in a must-pass omnibus spending bill appear to be dead in the water – at least for now. 
   “There is no bipartisan support to do anything on GMOs,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow told Agri-Pulse. The Michigan Democrat said the issue would be a “top priority for me in January to get a bipartisan agreement.” 
   Industry sources who spoke with Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., last week were still holding out hope of a last-minute deal, saying he believes it is possible to place federal preemption language in the omnibus budget package.
   Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said recently that the negotiations had broken down over resistance to a mandatory disclosure system. An industry source said labeling proponents were demanding that there be a special symbol or wording on food packages that contain biotech ingredients. 
   “All along the challenge was bringing the parties together,” said North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, who had been working with Stabenow on the issue. “I had hoped we could do that and get some consensus approach by year end, but at this point it doesn’t look we can do that, but we can continue to work on it.”
   The food industry is launching a smartphone-based ingredient disclosure system that will allow consumers to scan a QR code on package labels to get information about a variety of product attributes, including biotech ingredients, farm production methods and allergens. The information also will be accessible on the web. 
   The Hershey Co. is the first company to adopt the SmartLabel and about 30 companies are expected to put information about GMO ingredients in the Smart Label system for about 20,000 products over the next couple of years.
   Yet, pro-labeling activists say the SmartLabel doesn't address consumer demand for wording on the label and can’t be used easily by people without smartphones. 
   “Our view is that there should be a disclosure on the package that works for consumers,” said Scott Faber, executive director of the Just Label It coalition. “Many consumers will look at a two-dimensional bar code and not realize that’s a way to get information about GMOs,” he said.
   While the GMO labeling debate deepens and becomes more controversial, people in my neck of the woods are just scratching their heads and wondering why lawmakers want to make it so difficult to find something good to eat. 
   So maybe next year, those first graders will be saying things like “first, I will take my phone and scan my turkey” or maybe they will say that “first, I will read a label that lists every ingredient used to prepare my turkey.” But like many other hungry Americans, I think they will first recognize that they can’t eat the label. ∆
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/
   (Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this report.)

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