Market may settle GMO issue

Last month, the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have allowed states to require the labeling of genetically modified food.

The vote to reject the amendment wasn't close: It failed on a 71-27 vote. (Oregon's senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both were in the minority that favored the amendment.)

The Senate then went ahead and passed the Farm Bill — that mammoth collection of legislation that Congress typically renews every five years. But a couple of weeks ago, the House of Representatives rejected the entire thing: Some Democrats were outraged over the cuts the bill sought in the nation's food stamp program. Some Republicans were outraged that the bill didn't cut back enough on subsidies for farmers.

In Oregon, where agriculture is big business, the lack of a Farm Bill isn't good news for farmers — it throws another uncertainty onto an enterprise that already is beset with uncertainties. Our hope is that at some point, Congress will come to its senses and pass a Farm Bill — although the notion of Congress coming to its senses does seem increasingly remote.

But if you're thinking the genetically modified amendment might be resurrected in the next version of the Farm Bill, dream on. It's not going to happen.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require the labeling. But organic food companies and some consumer groups are pushing for the labels, arguing that the modified seeds are floating from field to field and contaminating pure crops. (The recent scare involving modified wheat growing in a field in Oregon is a case in point.)

As The Associated Press explained in a story about the Senate vote, genetically modified plants are grown from seeds that are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or otherwise improve crop yields. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States have been genetically modified. Agriculture companies say genetically modified products help boost crop production, lower prices at the grocery store and feed the world. The FDA and Agriculture Department say the engineered foods are safe.

However, a growing number of consumers increasingly are wary of processed and modified foods.

Even if Congress doesn't change its mind on the issue, the power of the market could: Companies that want to serve that growing market of wary consumers have a golden opportunity to make inroads by voluntarily doing the reverse of what the amendment would have required: proudly stating, on their labels, that their products are GMO-free.

Consumers would have a chance to vote on this matter with their wallets every time they shopped, and in a positive way. You can bet that farmers, typically close watchers of the market, would pay attention. Eventually, perhaps, even Congress would take heed.

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