Non GMO verified label

A label for non-genetically modified organisms is seen at Good Earth Market in Billings.

Gazette Staff

The battle over labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients is heating up in Congress, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is speaking out.

Tester is objecting to attempts to stop GMO ingredients from being labeled. An attempt to block the labels earlier this year stalled. Now, like a lot of unfinished measures, there’s talk about inserting the label ban as a rider in the year-end omnibus appropriations bill.

“I’m a farmer. I know exactly where my food comes from, but not all Americans have that ability,” Tester said.

At issue is whether the federal government, which hasn’t adopted GMO food labeling, has the ability to prevent states from creating their own labeling programs. A handful of states, including nearby Washington, have tried to create GMO labeling programs in the absence of federal labels. Vermont will require labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients in July 2016.

In Montana, the GMO issue is complex. There are interests that support labeling GMOs, including stores that promote it like Good Earth Market in Billings. But there is also an increase in Montana acres planted with GMO crops.

Sugar beets, modified to resist Roundup herbicide, occupy 45,000 Montana acres. Corn, which has been dominated by GMO varieties for several years, has gone from 72,000 acres in 2009 to a record high 130,000 in 2014. Canola, another crop with GMO varieties, has expanded from 6,500 acres in Montana in 2009 to 82,000 acres this year.

In each GMO crop planted in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has concluded there is no significant difference between those crops and non-GMO varieties. Farm groups have pointed to those USDA rulings as proof GMO ingredients need not be labeled.

“We don’t support mandatory labeling for genetically modified organisms,” said John Youngberg of Montana Farm Bureau Federation. “Of all the scientific studies, there’s nothing proving it’s any different than anything else.”

Tester isn’t making a judgment call on whether GMO foods are healthy, spokeswoman Marnee Banks said. Rather, the senator is concerned about the consumer’s right to know whether their food has been genetically altered.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he supports providing consumers with transparency in labeling, but is concerned that mandated labeling will unintentionally increase the cost of food and hurt working families. Spokesman Alee Lockman said Daines would consider labeling proposals, but balance the costs to consumers and producers.

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Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.