Opposition to genetically modified food is coming to a boil nationally and will culminate locally in a Billings protest Saturday.
“We’re just concerned citizens who want to spread awareness about the harmfulness of genetically modified foods,” said Shannon Kahler, organizer of the noon Saturday protest on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn.
The protests, dubbed March Against Monsanto, will take place simultaneously across the country and in Montana’s larger communities. There will be several speakers and information tables, Kahler said. The Billings protest is the only Treasure State event organized in a community where genetically modified crops are prevalent.
Farmers raising Monsanto sugar beets, corn or alfalfa genetically modified to survive exposure to the Monsanto herbicide Roundup say the crop science known as GMO has boosted yields and made weed management easier. Other genetically modified crops grown in state include canola in the north and soybeans in the extreme east.
Opponents worry that crops with genetics altered in a lab, including the addition of genes found in different species, pose unknown risks that plants altered the old-fashioned way through standard hybridization do not present.
Additionally, there have been lawsuits filed against nearly every GMO crop on the market today. The legal challenges mostly center on the risks of cross-pollination between GMO crops and organic varieties that lose their marketability if accidentally converted to GMO. Crop variety is another issue among plaintiffs who worry that mass adoption of GMO crops will mean the end of other varieties.
GMO crops are also patented by their creator and grown by farmers under contract, which raises the issue of lawsuits against noncontracted farmers found in possession of patented GMO crops, either through cross pollination, rogue seeds or illegal replanting.
There’s also the issue of herbicide exposure. Opponents argue that crops exposed to Roundup are dangerous. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly concluded that GMO foods are not only safe but also not different enough to require any kind special labeling.
“The big ones are the Roundup Ready ones because you’re wondering how much of the toxin you’re ingesting,” Kahler said. “They’re in everything.”
Kahler and others would like to see required labeling for food products containing GMO ingredients. There have been several attempts at the state level to require labeling of food containing GMOs, including in Montana, where legislators defeated the measures.
The Billings rally comes just two days after the U.S. Senate rejected a proposal allowing individual states to decide whether supermarket labels should be required on food containing genetically modified ingredients. Montana’s Democratic senators split on the amendment, which would have been added to the five-year, 2013 farm bill. Sen. Jon Tester, who farms organic grain near Big Sandy, supported the amendment. Sen. Max Baucus, a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, opposed the labeling amendment, which went down hard 71-27.
Before the amendment vote, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., objected to the measure, stating that science, not lawmaker opinion should determine the future of genetically modified organisms. Several more anti-GMO amendments could be considered Friday.