Labeling issue threatens biotech beets

I don’t follow the rationale in labeling a product containing GMOs that is safe and not nutritionally different

Whether you agree or disagree with the labeling of food packages that contain genetically modified organisms, I hope most agree we at least need a uniform standard for the country. Either label them all with consistent, specific standards and regulations, or continue to make it voluntary.

Personally, I don’t follow the rationale in labeling a product that is safe and not nutritionally different simply because it contains products derived from GMOs. That’s especially true when you consider non-GMO products are free to be labeled as such. I’ve shared my opinion before about the labeling issue, so I will spare you a repeat; feel free to read it in the February issue on Page 17.

What’s concerning in the realm of GMOs is what’s happening outside of legislative reach. It’s undoubtedly being fueled by the vast spotlight on GMOs, which has been sparked by Vermont’s GMO labeling law.

Large corporations, under pressure (real or perceived) from customers and consumers, are moving away from GMO ingredients and products. It seems it’s easier to adjust sourcing than to justify the product with all the science behind it. One industry already feeling the bite is sugar —in particular, sugarbeets, which are almost entirely raised from biotech seed.

Last year Hershey announced it will no longer use GMO sugar; it’s switching to sugarcane, which is not genetically modified. The $7.4 billion-a-year-in-sales candy giant’s decision to pull sugarbeet sugar from its 80-some brands of candy has the attention of growers and cooperatives around the country. Hershey says it is merely responding to what consumers want.

Thankfully, at least the safety of GMO sugar is not being called into question, as Hershey has scientific references on its website to support it wholesomeness — if that’s any consolation.

Sugar is sugar
What consumers don’t understand is, like other GMO products, there is no GMO material in the refined product. Sugar is the same, no matter its original plant source or growing practice. Sugar, whether from sugarbeets or sugarcane, or from sugar crops grown using conventional, biotech or organic methods, has the same nutritional value, composition and wholesomeness. Tests can’t tell the difference between beet or cane sugar.

Ray Van Driessche, director of community and public relations for Michigan Sugar Co., says it boils down to the consumer’s lack of information and understanding. “It’s frustrating. You can do all the scientific analysis you want, but sales are being affected regardless.”

The defeated, or at least stalled, legislation in the Senate introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would have blocked Vermont’s GMO labeling law — set to take effect July 1 — by creating new voluntary federal labeling standards for GMO food products for companies that want them. 

It doesn’t appear Hershey’s sugar-sourcing decision was influenced by the legislation, but it may have that effect on other food-producing companies, Van Driessche fears.

Regrettably, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the Senate Agriculture Comm-ittee’s ranking Democrat, voted against Roberts’ bill, saying she hoped a compromise could be worked out.

Sen. Stabenow, we need you to step it up. The threat is real. Mexico announced April 11 that its domestic sugarcane industry has between 300,000 and 500,000 metric tons of additional supply available, should this country require it.

Let’s make sure it doesn’t.

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