The battle over mandatory labeling of biotechnology-derived food has reached a boil.

“I’ve been asked to hit on a few points about farmers’ access to biotechnology,” said Andrew Walmsley, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Congressional Affairs liaison, during a July 16 call to the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s (MFBF) annual Summer Soybean, Corn, Wheat, and Feed Grain Grower Policy Meeting held at the Monsanto Learning Center in Scott. “We term it ‘biotechnology’ while opponents label it ‘GMOs’ so I may use that language interchangeably.

“We’ve seen a challenge over the last seven or eight years about this across the country. When I do a presentation on this I always try to go in with hat in hand and say, ‘You know what? I admit we’ve done a pretty poor job … speaking up and defending this technology -- not just from agriculture or the farmer side, but the tech companies to the grocery manufacturers and everyone in between.’

“Part of the problem is there are hard-working folks out there trying to produce something while there are people behind a keyboard trying to stir up trouble. They don’t do a whole lot else.”

Walmsley called this unwelcome development a “noise that has taken hold. We’re starting to see policy implications on account of that noise. Whether that’s an actual (biotech) county production ban in Oregon to 31 different states looking at some type of food labeling for biotechnology to Vermont, which just recently passed a standalone (labeling) bill  that’s set to become law.”

Due to the noise, he continued, there have been negative impacts “on regulatory predictability in Washington, D.C., on getting new traits to market. It’s really beginning to have an impact on competitiveness in U.S. agriculture.”

What is AFBF doing to counter the anti-biotech chatter?

One thing done in conjunction with biotech companies is the launch of www.GMOanswers.com. A web portal, the site allows a consumer to ask any question they want about biotechnology.

“It’s a very transparent process and it’s clear the site was put together by the biotech industry and supported by many commodity groups and Farm Bureau.

“So, ask your question and it’ll be answered by a third-party expert: an academic, a health professional, a farmer, or someone actually from (a biotech) company. There have been about 700 questions asked … and folks are staying on the site for about five minutes -- something that’s uncommon in the internet world.”

Also part of the pushback is Ketchum Communications, a company “that seeks out negative (biotech-related) tweets on Twitter. We started that earlier this year. They’ll monitor for negative tweets and then ask (the author) to check out GMOanswers. … Since we launched that there’s been about an 80 percent reduction in negative Twitter traffic as it relates to GMOs.”

Another component is in dealing with the press. This, said Walmsley, is not just for “Farm Press or more friendly publications but The New York Times, Huffington Post, Grist and more liberal publications not telling our side. Along with the U.S. Farmer and Rancher Alliance, which Farm Bureau is a member of, we went to them to present the facts and start telling our story. Since then, we’ve seen a real shift in that reporting -- our side is at least being presented and we see that as a positive.”

Yet another component is legislation introduced in April by Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas and North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield. Legislation has already been introduced that would require mandatory labeling.

“We’re opposed to mandatory labeling because it’s a target and our opponents have made it clear they want a government label on food products derived from GMO technology. They can go after that and force the technology away from us.”

Walmsley likened this to the “camel’s noise under the tent. GMOs today but what type of pesticide will you use tomorrow? They’ll take those tools away from you, too.

“So, to hopefully provide an opportunity for the grassroots, farmer members and those who care about the technology to have something positive to say, we thought it was important to put together that piece of legislation together. I’ll tell you it isn’t perfect. But it is an alternative and something that can speak against (anti-GMO bills).”