In an email last week, GMOInside.org – a coalition opposed to genetically engineered and genetically modified organisms, which counts shareholder activist group As You Sow a member – blasted an email chock-a-block with material for two previous posts (here and here). And now comes a third PowerBlog post about the activists’ effort to roll back Senate support for the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling (SAFE) Act, dubbed the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know Act – get it?).

Readers can judge the bill’s merits for themselves by reading the text of the original SAFE, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last summer and is now under consideration in the Senate. The law, if passed, cuts both ways. First, it may require labeling GMO food if such labeling is deemed by the FDA as “necessary protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading.” SAFE would prohibit labeling and advertising that makes claims of better safety or higher quality for either GMOs or organic foods. SAFE would also establish rules for non-GMO classification throughout the supply chain from farm to market.

Why the kerfuffle? While your writer finds the bill far less than perfect due to requiring FDA approval of GMOs before allowing them to market, the remainder seems relatively benign. However, GMOInside.org intern Carly Giddings frets:

Sidestepping the controversial debate around the safety and regulation of GMOs, the Senate is solely looking to address federal labeling. The proposal under consideration includes adding QR codes to food packaging as a means for consumers to find out more information about a product. But QR codes come with major downsides: they are economically exclusionary, granting only those who can afford smartphones and data a means to access food safety information, they are inconvenient, and they allow for the unfettered collection of consumer information.

Sidestepping? My dear Ms. Giddings, there’s nothing to sidestep – GMO crops don’t differ from traditional crossbreeding crops whether it’s nutritional or safety concerns causing your rhetorical brow to furrow. Plus, according to The Economist, GMO crops provide significant advantages to underdeveloped countries with high-population densities:

Each year the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a not-for-profit body, publishes estimates for the number of hectares under GM crops…. Its most recent report shows that, for the first time, developing countries are growing more hectares of GM crops than rich countries are—a remarkable uptake given that the technology was introduced only two decades ago, and is often seen as suitable mainly for rich farmers.

Rich countries are using more GM crops, too, but only slightly: they planted 1.6m hectares more than in 2011, up 3%. Developing countries planted 11% more (9m hectares). Of the 17m farmers who use such crops round the world, 15m are in emerging markets.

The Economist essay continues:

This year’s ISAAA report tries to calculate the effects of GM crops on the environment. It says they saved the equivalent of 473m kilograms of pesticides in 2011 (because GM makes crops resistant to pests); saved 109m hectares of new land being ploughed up (GM crops are usually higher-yielding so less land is required for the same output) and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 23 billion kg of carbon dioxide equivalent.

GM crops in general need fewer field operations, such as tillage. Reducing tillage allows more residue to remain in the ground, sequestering more CO2 in the soil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fewer field operations also means lower fuel consumption and less CO2.

Greens won’t believe these claims and will probably point out that ISAAA gets money from Monsanto and other GM companies. But that is not a good enough reason to dismiss them (and anyway ISAAA also gets money from governments and the UN). The underlying claim that GM crops reduce carbon emissions seems strong.

Additionally, the ISAAA report lists food security, sustainability and lowered greenhouse gas-emission benefits of GMOs – especially for economically and resource disadvantaged farmers. Yes, “sustainability,” the only word As You Sow and other religious shareholder activists throw around with the same degree of frequency as the mantras “social justice” and “climate change.”

In the period 1996 to 2012, millions of farmers in ~30 countries worldwide, adopted biotech crops at unprecedented rates. The most compelling and credible testimony to biotech crops is that during the 17 year period 1996 to 2012, millions of farmers in ~30 countries worldwide, elected to make more than 100 million independent decisions to plant and replant an accumulated hectarage of more than 1.5 billion hectares – an area 50% larger than the total land mass of the US or China – there is one principal and overwhelming reason that underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in biotechnology – biotech crops deliver substantial, and sustainable, socio-economic and environmental benefits. The 2011 study conducted in Europe confirmed that biotech crops are safe….

In 2012, a record 17.3 million farmers, up 0.6 million from 2011, grew biotech crops – notably, over 90%, or over 15 million, were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Farmers are the masters of risk aversion and in 2012, 7.2 million small farmers in China and another 7.2 million small farmers in India, collectively planted a record ~15.0 million hectares of biotech crops. Bt cotton increased the income of farmers significantly by up to US$250 per hectare and also halved the number of insecticide sprays, thus reducing farmer exposure to pesticides….

From 1996 to 2011, biotech crops contributed to Food Security, Sustainability and Climate Change by: increasing crop production valued at US$98.2 billion; providing a better environment, by saving 473 million kg a.i. of pesticides; in 2011 alone reducing CO2 emissions by 23.1 billion kg, equivalent to taking 10.2 million cars off the road; conserving biodiversity by saving 108.7 million hectares of land; and helped alleviate poverty by helping >15.0 million small farmers, and their families totalling >50 million people, who are some of the poorest people in the world. Biotech crops are essential but are not a panacea and adherence to good farming practices such as rotations and resistance management, are a must for biotech crops as they are for conventional crops.

And this:

To-date, biotech cotton in developing countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bolivia, Burkina Faso and South Africa have already made a significant contribution to the income of >15 million small resource-poor farmers in 2012; this can be enhanced significantly in the remaining 3 years of the second decade of commercialization, 2013 to 2015 principally with biotech cotton and maize….

Increasing efficiency of water usage will have a major impact on conservation and availability of water globally. Seventy percent of fresh water is currently used by agriculture globally, and this is obviously not sustainable in the future as the population increases by almost 30% to over 9 billion by 2050. The first biotech maize hybrids with a degree of drought tolerance are expected to be commercialized by 2013 in the USA, and the first tropical drought tolerant biotech maize is expected by ~2017 for sub-Saharan Africa. Drought tolerance is expected to have a major impact on more sustainable cropping systems worldwide, particularly in developing countries, where drought is more prevalent and severe than industrial countries.

It seems to this writer the only benefit for labeling GMO foods is to scare uneducated buyers with unsubstantiated concerns. Rather than scaring buyers away from GMOs, wouldn’t it make more sense to entice customers with the promise of delicious, completely non-GMO products labeled as organic or natural? Customers could then decide for themselves whether to purchase GMO-foods, natural foods or organic foods based on their pocketbooks and family preferences.

In the meantime, it’s doubtful the fear mongers at As You Sow and GMOInside.org will stop their baseless campaign against GMOs, which benefit poor farmers, poor families, poor countries and the environment.

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