Non-Engineered Food Demand Grows

By Beacon Staff

News of non-approved genetically engineered wheat discovered growing in Oregon put regulators on high alert. With the bulk of Montana wheat exported and Japan and North Korea temporarily suspending orders of western white wheat, markets and farmers were shaky.

All GMO wheat related questions were directed to Washington D.C. Montana grows some white wheat, but farmers grow mostly hard red winter and spring wheat, with overall annual sales nearing $2 billion.

Montana farmers garner a premium price for their wheat. Not many were likely happy about the economic risk GMO wheat brought to today’s prices.

The USDA has allowed more than 100 field test of GMO wheat in more than a dozen states, including Montana. It’s a hot political issue going back a decade when Montana was home to some dozen test plots of GMO wheat.

At that time, Brian Schweitzer traveled the state, then a political unknown with big ideas about the price of medicine, energy independence and agriculture.

On GMO wheat, Schweitzer said that he’s not willing to jeopardize the premium price farmers’ received to the profits of the bio-tech seed companies. Schweitzer said, “They haven’t been able to assure anybody in the market that we can keep identity preserved.”

In 2005, a freshly elected Gov. Schweitzer touted Montana’s ability to grow a diversity of crops and promised that he would not be a traditional politician. Schweitzer said, “I’ll give you a straight answer. I’m a hybrid. But I’m not a GMO.” Schweitzer has yet to indicate favor for labeling GMO food.

That year, the Schweitzer administration worked with then state Sen. Jon Tester on a bill establishing liability for any introduction of GMO wheat into Montana. In 2009, Schweitzer signed into law testing protocols for GMO crops that may drift from neighboring fields. But liability remains a thorny issue.

In Congress, Tester remains a vocal supporter of family farms and the local food movement. Last week Tester put forward an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill directing the USDA to prioritize public and classical research for seed and animal breeding. It’s one of 100 amendments, which may receive a proper vote.

Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid should appoint negotiators supportive of labeling GMO food for the final conference with the House. Not addressing GMO food in another five-year Farm Bill is a political mistake.

The local food enthusiasts turned out 2 million people worldwide to protest GMO. Hundreds rallied in Kalispell, as young moms concerned about food organized a huge turnout to advocate labeling.

Connecticut will pass a GMO labeling law. Others are closing in, as half the states have pending bills. Local and state citizen initiatives are on the rise.

Sixty-four countries mandate disclosure of GMO foods. Currently the FDA requires labeling for 3,000 other ingredients, additives, and processes, but not gene-altered organisms that tolerate weed-killing herbicides.

As part of the Farm Bill, Congress will pay 62 cents out of every dollar spent for private crop insurance for farmers coping with a changing climate. About $90 billion over the next decade in crop insurance subsidizes are spent on mostly-GMO food crops like corn and soybeans.

Democrats could easily lose their majority in the Senate if Schweitzer declines to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Max Baucus. Schweitzer could wake up an unresponsive Congress for years to come. Schweitzer is frugal, smart and all Montanan.

Senate Democrats believe passing a Farm Bill will provide election wins in open-seat states like Montana and South Dakota. But an unhealthy Farm Bill that ignores big policy issues will not motivate progressive voters to turn out for midterm elections. Ignoring policy didn’t work for 2010 midterms and won’t in 2014.

The public has every right to know which food at the grocer is GMO food that was gene-altered to tolerate weed-killing herbicides.

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