Martin Barbre may not remember the exact year he first planted genetically modified seed, but he sure remembers that very first crop.
"Of course, everybody was really skeptical," he recalls, speaking of his farmer friends and neighbors. "'Does this work? You can spray Roundup on a bean? And it won't die? Really?'"
For the Carmi, Ill., farmer and president of the National Corn Growers Association, the following years proved eye-opening, indeed. He eased his way into biotechnology and within four years of that first crop, he was planting 100% RoundupReady soybeans. Today, he and his son, Brandon, raise more than 5,500 acres of GMO yellow corn and non-GMO food-grade white corn, plus GMO soybeans.
"The main focus is this: we can raise much better crops, much cleaner crops, with less pesticide," Barbre says. "That's the whole point of the GMO debate."
And a debate it is. The use of biotechnology in production agriculture remains one of the most hotly contested topics in global food production today. Fueled by social media and fanned by activists on both sides, the use - and subsequent labeling - of GMO crops is being argued across editorial pages, legislatures, expert panels, farm blogs, movie screens and more.
In the crosshairs is a label for foods containing GM ingredients. Those who want them say it's a consumer's right to know. Those who don't say a label will create fear, drive up food prices, and ultimately reduce farmers' choices. Meanwhile, across the country, 30 states have considered approximately 120 different pieces of legislation or ballot initiatives calling for a GM food label, and four states have voted in favor of labeling laws.
Next: State by state labeling laws >>
State by state?
Vermont is the most recent state to pass legislation calling for a GM label, while debate rages on in neighboring New York. Rick Zimmerman, executive director for the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance, points to a recently-released Cornell University study, which shows the proposed New York labeling law would result in higher food costs for a family of four, by $500 to $800 annually.
"That a food labeling law would increase food costs did not enter into the discussion in Vermont, prior to this study," Zimmerman adds.
"We have a relatively elite group who want to impose their policies on the rest of us. You may have a right to know but you don't have the right to raise my food costs," he adds.
The Organic Consumers Association is one of the most vocal proponents of GM labeling, having given $1.5 million to the California pro-labeling ballot initiative and $700,000 in Washington state. Katherine Paul, OCA communications director, maintains there's "no significant cost to changing the label," and denies there would be any additional costs for farmers to switch to a non-GM or organic system. "Why would there be a cost?" she asks. "It's just a label."
Paul explains, "Kellogs, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, they sell in Europe without GMOs in them. Rather than re-label, they reformulate. If they can do it there, we can do it here. We can make it happen here."
In a perfect world, Paul says OCA would like to see GM foods "go away."
It's a position even some organic farmers don't hold. Carolyn Olson farms with her husband near Cottonwood, Minn., raising 1,100 acres of organic corn, soybeans and small grains, and conventionally finishing 7,000 hogs annually. "Personally, I think the USDA already has a label out there that could be considered a GMO label: the Certified Organic label," Olson says. "Why spend so much money on a labeling system when one is already in place?"
Mike Gruber with the Grocery Manufacturers Association sees a concerted effort to enact a state-by-state patchwork of laws that would "cripple the food distribution system."
"A patchwork of laws would create a deterrent," Gruber says. "I think they hope farmers and manufacturers abandon the technology altogether. The consequence of that is an immediate supply and demand problem."
Take Missouri, for example, Barbre says. Eight states border Missouri. If each state passes a different GM labeling law and he wants to sell corn there - or a food company wants to make a product there and ship it out - they'd need a different label for every state it's going to.
"It's far more than just making a label. It's a challenge to the supply chain, to storage, to thousands of products," Gruber adds.
Further, Barbre says a label should convey nutritional information. While a GM label would provide information, it doesn't provide information about what's in the food and its safety. In the instance of soybean oil, for example, where the GM protein disappears during processing, a GM label would actually be misleading in regards to what's in the food.
"A nutrition label should say what's in the product, how it affects me and the people I'm buying food for. And if it doesn't affect them in any way, there's no reason to label it," Barbre explains.
Next: A federal solution? >>
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., has introduced the bipartisan HR4432 that would provide a federal pre-emption of the state laws, and establish national standards for the safety and labeling of food and beverage products made with GMOs. It would back a science-based, voluntary labeling system, and it would provide guidelines on what foods can be labeled "natural." The legislation is backed by the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, a consortium of nearly 30 food and agriculture organizations that includes both NCGA and GMA. The coalition also has a consumer education arm.
Both NCGA and the American Soybean Association have come out strongly in favor of the Pompeo bill. Nathan Fields, NCGA's director of biotechnology and economic analysis, says if passed, the bill would give the federal government pre-emptive power over a state initiative. There is precedence for that pre-emption; the government has had federal pre-emption over meat labeling since the 1960s.
Fields points out that at its core, the issue is one of states' rights vs. federal rights.
"But in this case, the state-by-state solutions are an unworkable situation for food distributors and grocers. It's not possible to have different labels for different states. It's just not workable," he says.
Fields knows the bill won't get far in an election year, but hopes to see a hearing by the end of the summer and to see the law passed next year. The Vermont law goes into effect in 2015, so there's pressure to get something accomplished soon. He also expects to see the bill evolve a bit if it carries over into the next Congress.
"Regardless, I expect to see a framework established in the next five years," Fields concludes.
For Fields and others, our current system of voluntary labeling is enough. "If you want non-GM, that's what the organic standard is for. There's an option already for consumers to know that," he says.
Next: Popular opinion >>
Jayson Lusk is a professor of ag and food economics at Oklahoma State University and author of "The Food Police." He adds that the existence of the organic market at the grocery store does give consumers a sense of control and volition and can alleviate some concerns, as does the Non-GMO Verification Project, another voluntary labeling initiative.
Lusk questions the New York Times' survey results, showing 90% of Americans think GM foods should be labeled. "I do a lot of surveys and people are much more likely to say they are willing to pay a premium for a product - about twice as much as they actually are," he explains. Lusk adds that ballot initiatives actually reveal a lot about consumer preferences because they have to make an actual decision.
Ballot initiatives in California and Washington state both started out with GM labeling heavily favored in opinion polls. As voters researched and learned more about the technology, polls moved steadily toward a majority of voters being against the label and the initiatives ultimately failed.
Lusk tracked grocery store scanner data in Washington during the debate and found that market share for GMO-free soy milk went down. "It coincided with the opinion poll," he says. "People said, 'we want the label,' and as time went on, people got more information and it failed. That mirrored choices people were making in the marketplace."
In the end, Lusk doesn't believe people are willing to pay enough to offset costs of producing and segregating a non-GMO product.
"People are open to information and the information they received caused them to be less concerned about biotechnology - both in their desire for a label and in paying for it in the store," he concludes.
The group Lusk speaks of may best be described as the "moveable middle" - those not solidly entrenched in dogma.
At one far end: groups like OCA, who seek to change U.S. food production.
And at the other end? Martin Barbre. Farmer. Grower of GM corn and non-GM corn. And Carolyn Olson. Grower of conventional hogs and organic grain. Their goals are strikingly similar.
"The key is respecting each other's choices," Olson says. "I believe we can find the middle ground, and I think it needs to start with those of us in agriculture."
"I'm not against those processes, things like organic and non-GM," Barbre says. "I'm against putting an unnecessary label on a product that doesn't need it."
Next: Find the facts >>
Biotech: find the facts
Want more information? Here's a handful of websites offering up expert resources:
GMO Answers: Founded by the agricultural biotechnology industry with support from farm organizations, this site was developed as a one-stop-shop for answering questions about GMOs.
Facts About GMOs: The Grocery Manufacturers Association put this set of information together with consumers in mind.
Coalition for Safe Affordable Food: A group of like-minded industries across agriculture and food came together to promote a federal labeling solution.
Genetic Literacy Project: Ever heard mention of the "2,000 GMO studies" that have been done? This site has aggregated them all into one Excel spreadsheet.
USFRA: The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance has a wealth of information on their website, including videos on the GM approval process and panels of experts discussing a variety of GM topics.
Interested in the GMO discussion? Farm Progress Special Projects Editor Holly Spangler is exploring GMO foods, GMO labeling and the general genetically modified food debate in an exclusive series. Follow along with @HollySpangler on Twitter and using the links below: