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Tech Tuesday

The Issue that Won't Go Away

Biotech foods have been on farm more than a decade in many forms. Controversy over the technology seems endless.

Covering farm technology means being on the scene with ag biotech too. From the first days of tomatoes that had Bt to control worms (experimental of course) to herbicide-tolerant crops you can see plenty. And today it's a given for corn and soybean growers that biotech content will be part of the mix, but to the consumer there's still some confusion.

It's an issue that doesn't seem to go away, and I'm not too sure labeling advocates - if they win - will see the technology go away either. The push for labeling continues. It was considered, and defeated, by the Senate during its 2012 Farm Bill debate (we're still waiting on a House debate of the farm bill, but I digress); and there's a bill in the Senate worded just like the farm bill amendment from Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., calling for labeling. There are a lot of questions, and ideas, from opponents of the technology. There's also a lot of finger-pointing too with old studies dredged up, accusations from both sides and tons of other drama.

California has a ballot measure - the state thrives on letting the people decide its future in often interesting ways - that would require labeling foods with biotech content. Proponents of the bill claim it's a move toward transparency and I think they're relying on surveys that say consumers aren't so sure about the tech to push it off the shelf. Opponents of the labeling measure say the science is sound and labeling is not needed - even the American Medical Association has weighed in against labeling.

I think labeling is a sticky issue in how it could even be accurate. Would you label something that has the DNA from a biotech product? Or would you label a food that came from a biotech product, but didn't have the DNA. Case in point, vegetable oil has no DNA but often it comes from corn, soybeans or cotton that contain biotech genes.

A blog posted this week at offers a customer's perspective on the issue even offering a commonsense approach to labeling that opponents might even go along with. Check out that blog. The blog itself is run by three respected farmers - Jeff Fowle, Northern California; Mike Haley, Ohio; and Ray Prock, Central California.

From my perspective, I don't fear labeling. But perhaps I should, a perfectly good product - rBST - was pushed out of the fluid milk market through consumer-driven, and ill-informed campaigns (some readers will label me a mouthpiece for the biotech industry by that comment - we should talk) not science. That rBST example has the industry worried, but labeling can be your friend too - provided the rules for labeling make sense. If they don't, tacking more labels on food for busy consumers already not reading what's there…it's not good.

Biotechnology will help us continue to feed the world. Sure there were some initial promises that haven't panned out yet, but what tech in its infancy has done that. Biotechnology is only at the beginning of a long road of progress and benefits. How we all deal with the hot-button issues will determine whether, in agriculture, this powerful tool will be used for good.

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