DES MOINES — Imagine a bean stalk or a steer.
Now imagine a genetically modified bean stalk or a genetically modified steer.
Those pictures in your head are at the center of a debate over food labeling popping up in statehouses across the country, in the halls of Congress and at the ballot box.
On Wednesday, the Vermont Senate passed the first-in-the-nation labeling bill requiring the listing of GMO, or genetically modified organism, ingredients in food, which the House is expected to approve as well. It’s unique because it does not have a trigger requiring other states to pass similar laws before it takes effect, as did the law passed in Maine.
The Vermont vote came a week after U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” which would block laws requiring the mandatory labeling of foods developed using bioengineering.
According to Stateline, a news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, at least 25 state legislatures had bills addressing GMO labeling this year.
But not in Des Moines, where labeling is seen by some as an attack on farming — and, hence, the state itself.
“Gov. (Terry) Branstad believes that states shouldn’t be able to mandate labeling of GMOs. Similar to the California egg law, states’ laws shouldn’t negatively affect business and industry in other states,” said Jimmy Centers, spokesman for the five-term Republican governor. “Agriculture products from Iowa are safe and secure. That’s why many countries are eager to trade with Iowa producers and buy our corn, soybeans, pork, beef and other products.”
Iowa statute allows producers to label products “organic” if they meet federal guidelines set out by the Food and Drug Administration. These include specifications on soil quality, pesticides and other factors.
It doesn’t specifically address bioengineered food, which is estimated to be a part of about 80 percent of the food sold in grocery stores.
“Consumers have woken up to this issue,” said Katherine Paul, spokeswoman for the Finland, Minn.-based Organic Consumers Association. “People are looking for a non-GMO choice, and if given that choice, they’re probably going to choose the product that is not genetically engineered.”
Ruth MacDonald, chair of Iowa State University’s food science and human nutrition department, said those choices “are not based on scientific evidence.”
She said bioengineering has allowed farmers to increase production in and for an increasingly populated world. The labeling push, she said, is “a knee-jerk, unfortunate reaction to a lack of understanding and misinformed fear” of GMOs and their effects.
“It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Just put a label on,” she said. “But take, for example, corn. Would it be anything that was made out of the corn? Corn starch? Corn oil? An animal that ate the corn? How do you even verify that?”
Paul thinks the Vermont vote will be the first of many such efforts across the country. Consumers, she said, are looking for alternatives and producers recognize that.
“The market will respond,” she said.
State Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, chairs the House Agriculture committee. He said a patchwork of labeling laws would put an “undue burden” on producers who want to sell in other states.
“I think the fear is when people see a label, they’re going to automatically think it would have health concerns,” he said. “I think immediately people say, ‘That’s unhealthy for me to eat.’ But the federal government hasn’t said GMOs are unhealthy or that they pose a serious health risk.”
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, disagrees. He said the agriculture industry needs a market, and when consumers demand non-GMO food, labeling will be more prevalent.
He’s not convinced it requires legislation.
“My perception is there are a lot of Iowans are looking at this and want this information,” he said. “But I think it would be a tall climb (for a labeling law) here.”
Still, Hogg doesn’t want Congress to pre-emptively block Iowa’s ability to pass a labeling law if voters demand it.
It’s a sentiment he shares with retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
“I am skeptical of enacting new legislation that would impose a blanket prohibition against any differing GMO labeling requirements adopted at the state level,” Harkin said during a recent call with Iowa reporters. “It seems better to allow FDA to handle specific situations under existing law rather than have Congress jump into the matter with new legislation.”
But State Sen. Sandy Greiner, R-Keota, said this is precisely the kind of issue the federal government needs to be involved in. She was involved in the debate over what constitutes an organic product when Iowa looked at labeling those back in 2005. That’s when the state adopted the federal standard.
It’s the same issue now, she said, with GMOs.
“Some states say one thing, some states say the other,” she said. “You need one standard.”