Pivotal moment hit in battle over genetically enhanced food

The decades-old fight over genetically modified food has reached a fever pitch in Washington.

The Obama administration and Congress are weighing the safety of technological advances that seem ripped from science fiction, including salmon that can grow to full size in half the normal time and strains of crops engineered to resist powerful herbicides.

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Critics of these innovations warn that they could pose threats to public health, damage the environment or, in the salmon’s case, lead to the destruction of species when gene-splicing goes wrong.

Proponents argue that genetic engineering is perfectly safe and say it’s critical to providing a sufficient food supply for the world’s ever-growing population.

Proposed regulations to govern the foods are the subject of skirmishes that pit food safety advocates, organic farmers and consumer rights groups against the agriculture and biotechnology industries.

At the same time, a renewed legislative effort to require labels on genetically modified foodstuffs is gaining momentum in Congress.

“There’s a new consciousness in America about food and Agriculture,” said Colin O’Neil, the Center for Food Safety’s director of government affairs. “Finally this issue is being elevated to the national spectrum.”

Late last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced a bill that would require labeling on all genetically modified food.

“Consumers deserve to know what’s in the food they eat,” Boxer said. “When we give them the facts, they make the best decisions for their families.”

The effort is not new. Boxer started pushing the idea 13 years ago, and her legislation is seen as facing a difficult path forward through the divided Congress.

But both backers and opponents of the measure agree that support has grown. When she first introduced the bill, Boxer had zero co-sponsors. Now the legislation has more than 30 in the House and Senate, including a pair of Republicans.

The strides come as an increasing number of states have taken up the issue. None carried a heavier price tag than California’s Proposition 37, which was on the state’s ballots last year.

Industry groups and other critics of the measure poured more than $44 million into an opposition campaign, outspending proponents by a margin of more than four to one. The proposition was narrowly defeated.

But this month, Vermont's state House overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring labels on genetically modified foods, the first time an American legislative body approved such a measure. At least two dozen other states are considering similar labeling requirements, which have also been adopted in more than 60 foreign nations. 

An ABC News poll last summer showed that 93 percent of the public believes that the government should require labels on food that has been genetically modified.

"I think 93 percent of Americans really don't agree on anything in this country," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the advocacy group Just Label It. "So there really are few issues that unite Americans than desire to know what's in our food. People want to know more, not less.”

Representatives from the agriculture and biotechnology industries concede that momentum is not on their side.

"We're losing the battle when it comes to educating the public about the benefits of biotechnology and the opportunities that it gives all of us to make sure that people are fed across the world," said Tyler Wegmeyer, the director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau.

The industry groups contend that genetically enhanced produce and protein products are exactly like the rest of the food lining the aisles of the nation’s grocery stores, with no additional public health risks or nutritional differences.

Mandatory labels, the industry says, would only serve to prejudice consumers against important technological advancements.

“This is not meant to inform customers, it’s going to scare customers,” argued Cathy Enright, an executive vice president at The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

The trade association has been part of an extensive Washington lobbying effort in support of genetically modified food products.

The efforts could be paying off in some areas.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is weighing a proposal from the biotechnology firm AquaBounty Technologies to approve the fast-growing salmon for human consumption. Already, the agency has issued draft findings that the Boston firm’s fish are identical to traditional salmon, safe to eat and won’t cause environmental harm.

An extended public comment period on the proposal closed late last month, though it was unclear how soon a decision would come. Approval would be a major victory for the industry groups, and could hold implications for other genetically modified animals.

But the proposal has faced major pushback from a coalition of public interest and consumer advocates, environmental groups, commercial fisheries and other business interests.

Roughly 1.8 million people signed on to an online petition opposing approval. Dubbing the salmon “Frankenfish,” the groups have warned that the genetic fish could escape their designated water and mix with unaltered fish.

“They could wreak havoc on wild salmon populations,” said O’Neil of the Center for Food Safety, who cited research finding that the escape of 60 modified fish could lead to the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 generations.

BIO’s Enright dismissed the contention, saying the proposal calls for many levels of safeguards, not the least of which is an assurance that the fish will be sterile.

As they await the FDA’s decision, industry groups are smarting from a U.S. Agriculture Department’s (USDA) announcement that it would need additional environmental studies for crops genetically modified to be resistant to two weed-killers.

For years, farmers have planted herbicide resistant or “Roundup ready” corn, cotton and soybeans, which allow farmers to spray their fields for weeds.

But the crops have led to stronger “super weeds,” leading chemical and agricultural companies Dow and Monsanto to produce new herbicide resistant plants that the USDA has concluded need to be studied before approval.

Public interest groups cheered the increased scrutiny, but industry organizations said the delays involved would be a blow to the companies who developed the new strains as well as for farmers who have grown to rely on them.

While the Obama administration is taking executive action on multiple fronts, it has been careful not to take sides in the broader debate over the merits of genetically enhanced crops.

“Some people want you to pick sides,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Hill. “I'd rather do the tougher job: trying to bring sides together. That’s what I'm going to focus on."