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Debate Over GMO Labels Rolls On

Two decades after Robert T. Fraley pioneered Monsanto’s first genetically engineered crops, the public debate about the technology still rages.

Monsanto has spent millions of dollars in California and now in Washington state to fight mandatory labeling requirements that the industry fears could scare off consumers.

The company faces critics in Congress, too. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., is a strong supporter of labeling biotech foods, and last week she stripped a spending bill of a provision meant to ensure farmers could keep biotech crops even when judges rule they’re improperly approved.

But Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, is still bullish on the technology’s future. This summer, he and two other scientists who pioneered the technology were named co-winners of the World Food Prize, which honors scientists and political leaders for major advances in global food security. The prize was founded by Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for the “green revolution” that dramatically increased food production in India.

The World Food Prize Foundation’s decision to honor the scientists who created foods with genetically modified organisms has proved controversial, but Fraley wants the award to bring attention to the potential of the technology to make key crops more productive, resilient and nutritious.

“For many it will serve as a base for legitimizing the adoption of the technology in countries and crops around the world,” he said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call. “There’s a lot of countries in Africa and Asia that are still vetting the process.”

While ignored outside the trade press, the annual World Food Prize symposium that accompanies the award ceremony regularly draws an array of foreign agriculture officials, international leaders in agribusiness and representatives of development organizations. This year’s agenda includes addresses by Nigeria’s agriculture minister as well as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a representative of the Vatican.

The president of the World Food Prize, Kenneth Quinn, defended the decision to honor the technology the three scientists had pioneered. “The view of our organization and our committee is that in the face of controversy, you shouldn’t back away from your precepts,” he said. “If you do so, you are diminishing the prize.”

Fraley said Monsanto won’t stop fighting state proposals to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. He applauded the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for recently approving a label for meat and egg products that are produced without the use of biotech feed. He says he’d like to see similar GMO-free labeling for other foods. The idea is that consumers who don’t like biotech products can choose foods that are labeled non-GMO or certified organic. Federal organic standards forbid the use of GMO crops.

Fraley said the only reason opponents push for the mandatory labeling of biotech foods is to stop the technology from being used. “They’d like to see GMOs with a safety connotation that is suspect, which is what happens when you label salt or sugar. … The voluntary labeling satisfies any marketplace or consumer choice issue,” he said.

Critics of biotechnology argue that consumers have a right to know whether foods have GMO ingredients.

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