MFU Public Radio Commentary
By Sandy Courtnage
June 26, 2012

Farm Bill Balancing Act

There are many reasons to be following the discussions in Washington, D.C. about the 2012 Farm Bill.  Perhaps you work in agriculture, growing food or raising livestock – or you are involved in food security work or interested in preserving our agricultural heritage.  Whatever your interest – whether a producer or consumer -- the Farm Bill touches many aspects of our society – every thing from energy policy to nutrition – from research to food assistance – along with farming and forestry practices. 

Last week, the U.S. Senate debated and passed a bill that had more than 70 amendments attached to it – some of them germane to the bill and others not.

There was an amendment to reduce SNAP (the nutrition program), to create an income means test before qualifying for programs, and even an amendment to eliminate several conservation measures.  All in all, the Senate controlled the length of debate and decided these 70 plus amendments in a matter of days.

A particularly interesting amendment, especially to some food advocates, is one offered by Senator Bernie Sanders.  The amendment (number 2310) would let states require that any food or beverage containing genetically engineered ingredients be clearly labeled.

The impetus for this Farm Bill amendment arose in Senator Sanders’ own state of Vermont.  Earlier this year the Vermont Legislature passed just such a labeling bill out of its House Agriculture Committee by a vote of 9:1.  Nevertheless, the bill went no where after Monsanto threatened to sue the state.

The Sanders Amendment is cosponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer of California, and acknowledges that states have the authority to require the labeling of foods produced through genetic engineering or derived from organisms that have been genetically engineered.

The amendment also requires the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to report to Congress on the percentage of food and beverages in the U.S. that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

In Boxer’s home state of California, almost 1 million signatures were gathered to put a GE labeling petition on the ballot in November.  California, too, will benefit from this bill’s passage, if their ballot initiative passes.

To have Monsanto threaten to sue is not something to take lightly.  Monsanto – a multi-national company – reported $1.6 billion in profits last year, and easily has the financial muscle to take on individual farmers, municipalities and states.  And they do.

According to a press release from Senator Sanders’ office, food labels in the U.S. already must list more than 3,000 food ingredients ranging from gluten, high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats or MSG, but not genetically altered ingredients.  Around the world, however, 49 countries require labels on foods if they contain ingredients that are genetically engineered.

Unlike people in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, China, Russia, New Zealand and other countries where labels are required, Americans don’t know if the food they eat has been genetically altered.

Also according to Sanders, “in the 1990s there was consensus among scientists and doctors at the FDA that genetically-altered foods could have new and different risks such as hidden allergens, increased plant-toxin levels and the potential to hasten the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease….”  The American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association have passed resolutions calling for new studies in the impact of genetically-altered foods.

Sanders stressed that labeling genetically-altered foods will not increase costs to shoppers.

“The Sanders Amendment is about allowing states to honor the wishes of their residents and allowing consumers’ to know what they’re eating.  “’Monsanto and other major corporations should not get to decide this, the people and their elected representatives should,’” Sanders said.

We agree.  MFU policy clearly supports labeling. 

Unfortunately the U.S. Senate disagreed and defeated the amendment by a vote of 26 to 73.  Montana’s Senators split their vote.

For the Montana Farmers Union, I’m Sandy Courtnage.  Thanks for listening.