Agricultural biotechnology was the subject of a two-panel hearing Wednesday, hosted by the Senate Ag Committee.
On the first panel, the Committee welcomed representatives from three key agencies involved in agriculture and biotechnology – USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.
For a second panel, the Committee invited Vermont farmer Joanna Lidback, Herr Foods President Daryl Thomas, Stonyfield Farm Co-Founder Gary Hirshberg, Center for Science in the Public Interest Biotech Director Gregory Jaffe and MassGeneral Hospital for Children Physician in Chief Dr. Ronald Kelinman.
While the overarching topic was biotechnology in agriculture, much of the discussion centered on GMO labeling; In the first panel, experts testified on the safety of biotechnology.
"We have great confidence in the safety of GE crops that have been approved under the U.S. regulatory system," testified Michael Gregoire, associate administrator of USDA APHIS.
The director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA, Susan Mayne, agreed.
"We are confident that foods from genetically engineered sources in the U.S. marketplace today are as safe as their conventional counterparts," she said.
Later, other panelists discussed what could happen to the food supply chain if an approved state law in Vermont requiring GMO labels is allowed to go into full effect next year.
According to Herr Foods' Daryl Thomas, his company would be required to segregate products and perform third-party analysis on GMO-free products while changing packaging. All of that would bring added costs to the consumer, he said.
Farmer Joanna Lidback noted in her prepared testimony that ultimately, livestock farmers could be affected by such biotech concerns because her farm demands feeds derived from biotech crops to remain profitable.
"We'd be paying an additional $4,000 a month or $48,000 a year for non-GMO feed," she explained. "I don't see how we could profitably farm with those increased costs; I'm certain our small farm would be pushed out of business."
Following the hearing, the National Corn Growers Association, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and National Grain and Feed Association suggested that a national labeling standard is needed to clear up confusion and avoid potential varying state laws.
"NCGA and Congress agree: consumers should have access to food choices that are safe, nutritious, abundant and affordable," said NCGA Trade Policy and Biotechnology Action Team Chair John Linder.
"Congress, and only Congress, can now prevent a costly and confusing patchwork of state labeling laws from taking effect next year. The Senate must act now to avoid the negative consequences inaction will surely bring for consumers and farmers across the country."
Lidback, who represented NCFC on the panel, said she favored a national voluntary standard because an affirmative label could be perceived by the consumer as negative.
"In my opinion, the new label wouldn’t better inform consumers but instead serve as a warning sign,” Lidback testified. “If a small percent of consumers are to drive a GMO labeling requirement I believe it should be done in a voluntary and cohesive way at the federal level."
In July, legislation passed the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support that would create uniform national food labeling standards. If the Senate does not follow suit, Vermont's GMO labeling law will go into effect next July.
Meanwhile, other states and localities have passed or are considering state-level labeling mandates.