More than 25 states have pending legislation or ballot initiatives to label retail food products that contain biotech ingredients, including corn and soybeans. The patchwork of proposals is confusing, and so is farmers’ future reaction to them.

Stakeholders claim varied state biotech food label laws could increase food production costs and red tape, reduce seed choices and drag farmers into lawsuits.

“While some proponents of biotech labeling claim it is a right-to-know issue, others – and particularly those who fund these efforts – are open about their intention of mandatory labeling as the first step on the road to ending agriculture’s use of biotechnology,” says Michael Dykes, Monsanto vice president of government affairs.

Your planting choices could be dramatically affected. In 2013, USDA estimates 90% of the corn crop and 93% of the soybean crop were planted with biotech seed.

“Farmers, food producers, grocers and retailers would have to implement separate and distinct systems to grow, handle, record, process, transport and sell products in those states,” says Karen Batra, director, food and agriculture communications, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

This would ultimately create millions of dollars in costs that would be passed on to consumers as higher food prices, Batra says. Studies have found that mandatory labeling would increase food costs for the average American family by more than $450 per year.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long held no need for special food product labeling exists, unless there's a meaningful difference in nutrition or food safety.  But rather than take "no" for an answer, anti-biotech groups are pursuing labeling on a state-by-state basis.  Dykes says as a result, federal attention to the issue is growing.  Congress has voted twice in the last two years by 3-to-1 margins against allowing states to label on the basis of biotechnology.

states debating biotech labeling legislation

State efforts continue

The highest profile state labeling effort, California’s Prop 37, was defeated in November 2012 by a margin of 51% to 49%. It would have required the state to monitor thousands of food labels for compliance and banned the sale of thousands of California grocery products unless they were repackaged, relabeled or made with non-biotech ingredients.

Connecticut has since passed legislation mandating the labeling of all retail foods containing biotech ingredients. Its October 1, 2014 implementation hinges on several other states adopting similar measures, The Vermont House has passed a similar bill, which the Vermont Senate will review in January. Maine may sign a mandatory law in 2014, which will take effect if neighboring states pass the same.

Most recently, voters in Washington state voted down the I-522 biotech-labeling initiative by a margin of 53% to 47%.A proposed initiative on Hawaii’s Big Island would prohibit biotech crop cultivation, and a similar ban in Jackson County, Ore., has qualified for a May 2014 ballot.       Labeling bills have also been introduced in the Illinois House and Senate. Ron Moore, a soybean farmer from Roseville, Ill., testified last summer at the Illinois Senate Subcommittee on Food Labeling hearing.

“One of the outcomes of biotech labeling would be an increase in the number of families suffering from food insecurity and hunger,” he said. “It especially will be manifested in low-income urban and rural communities.”

More than 17 million farmers choose biotech crop varieties, and these “warning label” types of policies could discourage the use of a resource that brought farmers a $98.2 billion economic benefit from 1996 to 2011, BIO’s Batra claims.

Future repercussions

Batra also warns that vandalism could hinder the use and advance of biotechnology. In Hawaii, vandals have already cut down papaya trees. Sugarbeet plots were destroyed in Oregon, and militant activists vandalized and destroyed Golden Rice field trials in The Philippines.

“In addition, the timing of regulatory approvals among major trading partners is not in synch, which can trigger trade disruptions,” Batra says, adding that the U.S. ag biotech regulatory system is beginning to falter from regulatory delays and unfounded lawsuits, shrinking investment in ag biotech and threatening America’s competitive edge globally.

Join the conversation

Karen Batra of BIO encourages farmers to direct consumers to resources where conversations occur:

• GMO Answers (www.gmoanswers.com), produced by members of the Council for Biotechnology Information, provides information and answers visitors’ questions about biotechnology in agriculture and food production.

• Food Dialogues (www.fooddialogues.com), hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, tackles labeling with perspectives from a variety of experts.

• The Center for Food Integrity’s Best Food Facts (www.bestfoodfacts.org) features a “true or not” section about biotech issues.

• The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Get the Facts on GMOs (www.factsaboutGMOs.org) posts fact sheets and other resources.

What will farmers do?

It’s not at all clear how farmers would react if food companies are mandated to label their foods’ biotech status. Nor is it clear how food companies might change their product/marketing efforts beyond label wording. Will more farmers accept a premium to grow non-GMO corn or soybeans and shift back to old weed and pest control methods? Will seed companies change their product mix to add more conventional hybrids and varieties, and at what price? More questions than answers remain.