The Food and Drug Administration will fund a campaign to promote genetically modified organisms in food under a bipartisan agreement to keep the government funded through the end of September.
The deal to avert a government shutdown, which passed the Senate by a vote of 79 to 18 Thursday, allocates $3 million to “consumer outreach and education regarding agricultural biotechnology,” which includes genetic engineering of food and commodity crops. The money is to be used to tout “the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts” of biotech crops and their derivative food products.
More than 50 agriculture and food industry groups had signed on to an April 18 letter urging the funding to counter “a tremendous amount of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology in the public domain.” But some environmental groups and House Democrats have derided the provision as a government-sponsored public relations tour for the GMO industry.
“It is not the responsibility of the FDA to mount a government-controlled propaganda campaign to convince the American public that genetically modified foods are safe,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who attempted to get the measure struck from the bill last month. “The FDA has to regulate the safety of our food supply and medical devices. They are not, nor should they be, in the pro-industry advertising business,” Lowey said during a congressional hearing
It’s unclear what the FDA campaign will look like, or when it will launch. The $3 million allocated is little more than a speck in the FDA’s total allocated budget of $2.8 billion.
The budget specifies only that the initiative be developed in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, and include the “publication and distribution of science-based educational information.” An attempt by Democrats to redirect the project’s funding to pediatric medical projects within FDA was unanimously voted down by Republicans.
A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 39 percent of American adults believe that genetically modified foods are worse for health than their conventional equivalents — an assessment with which the vast majority of scientists disagree. Nearly 90 percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe GMOs are safe to eat, according to another Pew study.
“Clearly, communication of the benefits of biotechnology from the scientific community has not gone well, and this presents an opportunity to engage with the public in a more meaningful dialogue,” said Mark Rieger, the dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who signed the industry letter. “We see it as a communication issue, not a political one.”
But critics argue the issue is inherently political, given the financial ties between lawmakers and the ag biotech industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, agribusiness interests donated more than $26.3 million to political campaigns, including those of several congressmen who sit on the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee.
Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), the chair of that subcommittee and a defender of the GMO education funding, received $10,000 from Monsanto in 2016.
“This is a really clear example of big ag influencing policy,” said Dana Perls, the senior food and technology campaigner for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “The Trump administration is putting big ag before consumer desire and public health … Consumers do not want this.”
Critics have also wondered whether it’s the government’s job to communicate this particular information — and whether that information, as written in the budget, oversteps what scientists really know. While there’s a widespread consensus that GM crops are safe, there are valid and lingering questions about the environmental and social impacts of GMOs.
Last year, an academic analysis of 14 years of farm data found that an uptick in GM seed plantings goes hand-in-hand with increased herbicide use, for instance. Some herbicides have been found to contribute to health problems in animals and humans.
Many of the touted benefits of GMOs haven’t materialized, either, argues Andy Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a D.C. nonprofit that has filed numerous legal challenges against the makers of GM crops.
An October analysis by the New York Times found that the technology does not significantly increase yields. And few GM products with tangible consumer benefits — such as better taste or nutrition — have yet made it onto the U.S. market.
“So yes, that gives them a marketing problem,” Kimbrell said. “But Monsanto has plenty of money to advocate for GMOs ... Why do we need to use taxpayer dollars?”
One possible answer, from industry’s perspective, is that taxpayer dollars are already funding a Department of Agriculture initiative to label GM foods. Last year, Congress passed a bill mandating that food companies disclose the GM ingredients in their products, and USDA has said it is actively working on the standards for those labels.
Patrick Delaney, a spokesman for the American Soybean Association, said it will be important for consumers to understand those labels once they roll out, likely after September 2018.
“We recognize that there is a need for better and more accessible information on what this technology is and what it provides to consumers, he said by email. “We supported (and still support) that $3 million in funding for biotech education ... to better inform the public about the use of biotechnology in food and agricultural production.”
Correction: This story originally said that the Food and Drug Administration was working on an initiative to label GMO foods. The effort to develop those labels is based at the Department of Agriculture. The Post regrets the error.
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