Promoting agriculture in the public interest, including advocating for agricultural literacy and an understanding of where our food comes from, is a core component of my job as the chief agricultural official in my state. Over the past decade, some consumers have expressed growing interest in how their food is grown, and if it was produced from seeds set up by biotechnology to put their best roots forward. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Kan.) is attempting to bring forward a common sense solution to consumers through the introduction of a national voluntary labeling system for bioengineered foods.
It may seem counter-intuitive for state officials to support a bill that preempts state law, but when it comes to America’s complex food system, state by state patchworks of biotechnology food labeling laws are chaotic for commerce, difficult to enforce and will deliver many unintended consequences. Mandatory, state-level rules on labeling of foods produced using biotechnology will decrease the diversity of foods on our shelves and the cost will ultimately be placed on the plate of families.
Mandatory labeling of foods derived from biotechnology will create a ‘skull and crossbones effect’ on our safe and affordable food supply which will generate or exacerbate fears of advanced genetic techniques. What a mandatory label won’t tell consumers is that foods and food crops produced using biotechnology are among the most reviewed, studied, scrutinized and regulated products in the world. Further regulation at the state level would be redundant and costly. My fellow commissioners, secretaries, and directors of agriculture, those who would likely oversee such state-level oversight of labeling practices, voted in favor of federal preemption on this issue at a meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) last month.
Biotech crops have been widely grown and safely consumed over the last two decades and more. If consumers and food manufacturers migrate to more GMO-free products, food costs will go up, and more land and resources will be needed to produce the same amount of food. Consumers who wish to choose GMO-free foods can already do so by selecting USDA-Certified Organic products, another highly regulated system. State-by-state mandatory on-package labeling will diminish consumer choices and increase costs for all consumers--hitting those who can least afford it the hardest. The Roberts bill approach will allow the market to determine and respond to the true desires of consumers as they vote with their dollars.
No one seems to challenge the extensive and growing use of genetic engineering in medicine and pharmaceuticals. Food and agriculture should not be asked to address present and future challenges of growing human populations, increasing climate and weather challenges to food production, and the rapid transit of pests and pathogens brought by global trade and travel, with 100 year-old tools and science.
Roberts’s bill is a common sense solution to an important national issue. I urge all members of the United States Senate to support it. A vote against this bill is a vote against the very farmers and ranchers who feed you, and against the working families who can least afford the costs of tracking and separating ingredients by the source of the seed.
Merrill is the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food, a mother, grandmother, and lifelong dairy farmer. She is the vice chair of the Rural Development and Financial Security Committee of NASDA.