Montanans eye Washington's GMO food fight

2013-11-06T00:00:00Z 2014-02-24T12:40:18Z Montanans eye Washington's GMO food fightBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

An Election Day food fight in the state of Washington has captured the interest of Montanans favoring labels for food with genetically modified ingredients.

Voters in Washington on Tuesday settled a heated battle between consumer groups wanting GMO labels and an agribusiness lobby insistent that crops with altered DNA are no different from those created through standard hybridization.

The battle, in which Initiative 522 failed 47 percent to 53 percent in initial results, had Montanans opposed to GMOs wondering whether voters here were ready for a labeling initiative.

“I have personally begun preliminary conversations with people about legislation and a petition,” said Kate Keller of the Missoula Food Cooperative.

Non-GMO labels

Cooperatives and natural food stores in Montana’s larger communities, including Billings, have been adding non-GMO labels to grocery items for the last three years. The labeling stems from food industry objections to labeling food with GMO ingredients, like corn syrup, beet sugar and canola oil. What started as a few non-GMO items has grown to a large inventory.

“We’ve labeled over 1,000 items certified non-GMO. We’re actually seeing some movement in what sells,” said Perry McNeese, of Good Earth Market in Billings.

It wasn’t that long ago that Good Earth had only a few hundred items with non-GMO labels, but the public is suspicious about the safety of GMO foods, like those engineered to survive the application of Roundup herbicide. Businesses that weren’t previously labeling non-GMO foods are seeing the marketing benefits of the label.

Educating consumers

“It’s important to us to educate the consumer and one of the best ways people can vote is with their forks,” said Alicia Weber, who coordinates the non-GMO labeling at Good Earth. “Since the non-GMO project has started, it’s grown exponentially. You rarely find someone who wants to talk about the benefits of GMOs.”

Farmers do talk about the benefits of GMO crops. Yields have been consistently higher on Montana sugar beet farms, which in the last five harvest seasons have averaged better than 30 tons of beets an acre, an amount rarely attained before the arrival of Roundup Ready sugar beets. Because the beets resist Roundup, they don’t lose growing days to the chemical hangover suffered by non-GMO crops.

The Montana Grain Growers Association has written into its bylaws support for genetically modified wheat, a crop that hasn’t been commercialized and is currently unwanted by foreign buyers. The thinking is that wheat engineered to resist drought and maximize its use of nitrogen would perform better.

There are at least five genetically modified crops raised in Montana — sugar beets, corn, alfalfa, canola and soybeans in the far eastern part of the state. Those crops are added to processed foods and also to animal feed for everything from pigs to dairy cattle. In each case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has concluded that though genetically modified, the crops posed no public health risk and weren’t significantly different than non-GMO crops.

The government’s OK hasn’t calmed concerns about the safety of genetic engineering.

Walter Archer is a Powder River County wheat farmer and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. He’s was rooting for the Washington labeling initiative to pass.

“I’m not sure we’re quite ready for that in Montana yet, but I feel like we’re heading in that direction. It amazes me how many people are concerned about it and who feel there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a choice about what we eat. Right now we don’t.”

In Washington, labeling proponents used the initiative process to get the issue on the ballot. Initiative 522 would have required GMO labels on the front of food packages, and also on genetically engineered produce, meat and fish.

The initiative sparked a campaign spending war. Opponents spend $22 million fighting I-522. Donations to defeat I-522 were lead by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as well as Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, and Bayer CropScience. The pro I-522 crowd raised about $7 million.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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