Farm Talk

February 18, 2014

Economist talks GMO labeling at soybean expo

Candace Krebs

Parsons, Kansas — Ag economist Jayson Lusk is reading the tea leaves as reflected in a box of Cheerios breakfast cereal.

The Oklahoma State University professor gave farmers attending the Oklahoma Soybean Expo a sweeping overview of how a widespread push to label genetically modified foods might affect them — perhaps dramatically — in the years ahead.

“It’s a debate that’s going on whether you want it to or not,” Lusk told soybean growers. “It’s important for you to be aware of what’s going on, and it’s important to be engaged in the dialogue.”

Lusk has his finger on the pulse of consumers as the creator of a first-of-its-kind monthly online survey, in addition to being a published author and speaker. He recently contributed an op-ed to the New York Times arguing for why the U.S. needs GMO wheat.

General Mills has been in the news lately for announcing it would begin labeling basic Cheerios as free of any GMO ingredients. The kicker is that the product is made from oats, which never underwent modern bioengineering to start with. Sugar and cornstarch reportedly make up a fraction of the cereal’s formulation, though they will require careful sourcing and documentation to make the switch.

Lusk sees moves like this one, along with the recent formation of a large coalition of food manufacturers seeking standards for voluntary GMO labeling, as an effort to pre-empt mandatory labels.

So far GMO labeling ballot initiatives have failed in Oregon, California and Washington, but Maine and Connecticut gave them a thumbs-up pending similar action by adjoining states. “There’s lots of new initiatives on the horizon,” Lusk added.

In his most recent survey, consumers ranked GMO labeling near the top of their priority list, well above basic information like serving size or protein content. More than 50 percent of respondents said they wanted the information regardless of any added cost.

“With active lobbying efforts underway in ten states, this is an issue that’s going to be here for the foreseeable future,” Lusk said. “My reading of the tea leaves is that public opinions are hardening on this issue, and they are hardening fast.”

If a major GMO labeling campaign were to succeed, the fallout is unclear.

“I don’t think we really know what would happen,” Lusk said. “But I think the likely outcome is all companies would try to avoid the label.”

Calling it a “regressive tax” that would hit the poorest consumers hardest, Lusk estimated the measure would increase the food bill of the average consumer by $400 to $500 a year. He said increased cost was the factor most often cited by consumers who oppose labeling.

It sounds counterintuitive, but Lusk argued that label-happy countries like France — where he spent a sabbatical in 2007 — actually offer fewer choices at the grocery store. “Superficially, it appears to increase choice, but in fact it may do exactly the opposite,” he said.

Imposing GMO labels in the U.S. now, when more than 90 percent of all soybeans are already genetically engineered, would be a whole different ballgame than what happened in Europe, he said.

“In Europe, all they were doing was not adopting the technology,” Lusk said following his presentation. “To reverse our policy now is a much different position to take.”

Oklahoma Soybean Board Executive Director Rick Reimer said if the issue continues to gain momentum, it could have a big impact, especially with the lack of conventionally developed varieties in the pipeline.

In fact, part of the convention program was devoted to how biotechnology is continuing to evolve and develop promising new tools that could help farmers deal with arguably the industry’s most pressing production challenge — Roundup-resistant weeds.

Todd Baughman, an OSU weed scientist, told growers about a new generation of soybeans bioengineered with resistance to several alternative herbicides, including 2,4-D and dicamba, that are scheduled for release as early as next year. But he also reminded them to use the technology responsibly, emphasizing the importance of starting with clean fields, rotating their weed control chemistries, using add-ins to make Roundup more effective and applying residual herbicides throughout the season.

“We’ve relied heavily on Roundup the last few years, but, remember, we could control weeds prior to Roundup Ready soybeans,” he said. “And let’s not forget what we’ve learned so far. We don’t want to burn through these new technologies.”

Farmers will likely need additional training in the future to better manage drip sprayers as they move from crop to crop, Baughman added. Limiting spray drift will also become more critical.

Baughman told farmers to expect to hear boasts from marketers about new products coming out with less volatile formulations, but added that in his experience easily 98 percent of spray drift problems were due to flaws in physical application rather than a volatility issue.

Roundup resistant palmer amaranth, or pigweed, is getting the most attention in Northeast Oklahoma. Baughman described it as a “key pest,” similar to the boll weevil in cotton.

But Reimer noted that agronomists who provide free crop consulting to farmers through a special service funded by the Oklahoma Soybean Board tell him herbicide resistance is more widespread. “They’ve told me it’s not a universal weed, it varies by area,” Reimer said, noting that marestail and henbit are other problem weeds.