By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - With California set to vote in November on labeling of food made from genetically modified crops, pressure is mounting on the federal government to tighten regulation of these crops and the foods they become.
The "Right to Know" measure on California's ballot November 6 would require labeling of any food sold in the state containing ingredients made from genetically modified crops (GMOs). If the measure passes, it would be the first such U.S. labeling law, and so far polls have shown strong support for the measure.
Notably, a national labeling campaign is also underway. Both efforts come at a time when more scientists are calling for mandatory U.S. safety testing of GM crops before they go to market. And internationally, alarm bells are sounding over a range of GMO-related impacts. These include super weeds that have developed resistance to heavy use of herbicides and studies indicating tumors in GMO-fed rats and other health problems.
While other studies show GM crops are safe, pressure is building on U.S. regulators, who have repeatedly deemed any labeling or regulatory safety testing unnecessary.
"It might be a tipping point," said Cory Andrews, senior litigator at the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-business, law and policy group that has been involved in GMO litigation supporting Monsanto Co., the world's largest developer of genetically modified crops.
On Thursday, the Organic Consumers Association said it was delivering a petition backed by 200,000 consumers calling on President Barack Obama to require labeling.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received more than 1.2 million comments supporting the Center for Food Safety's legal petition, filed last year, seeking mandatory labeling for GMO foods. The consumer advocacy organization said that was the most comments ever filed on an FDA proposal.
Fourteen states last year considered new bills on labeling or banning GMO foods.
"There is certainly more pressure to take a closer look at this" in terms of labeling demand and mandatory U.S. government safety assessments, said Andrews. "Some of it comes from the concerns of some activists that big companies like Monsanto and DuPont are experimenting on people."
Monsanto introduced genetically altered crops in 1996, in soybeans altered to tolerate dousings of its Roundup herbicide. Since then, Monsanto and rivals including DuPont and Dow Chemical have rolled out an array of genetically altered crops from corn to canola to sugarbeets.
The most popular, GMO corn and soybeans, are now planted on more than 85 percent of the U.S. acreage devoted to those crops.
The companies alter crop DNA by splicing in genetic material from other species, including types of bacteria, to change the way they function. Popular biotech crops survive treatments of toxic weedkiller and also manufacture their own toxins to kill insect that feed on the crops.
Farmers have embraced them in the United States and many other countries as a productivity aid, at a time of growing concerns over world food supplies.
Since the GMOs were introduced 16 years ago, academic researchers around the world have been running a range of experiments to try to determine their effects.
The most recent study to garner attention showed rats fed a lifetime diet of Monsanto's GMO corn or exposed to its top-selling weedkiller Roundup suffered mammary tumors, as well as severe liver and kidney damage.
That peer-reviewed report issued last month, from French University of Caen scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini and seven other researchers, triggered responses around the globe that highlighted anxiety over safety concerns surrounding GMOs.
Russia immediately banned imports of Monsanto's genetically modified corn, the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) called for an immediate ban on the import and cultivation of the corn. And French seed maker Vilmorin & Cie SA, the world's No. 4 seed group, dropped plans to conduct field tests of genetically modified crops next year in its home market, saying debate over the technology remains too highly charged.
The rat study came under heavy criticism from the biotech industry and from some scientists who said it was poorly conducted. The European Food Safety Authority initially questioned the study's validity, but is reviewing it.
The rat study was only one of hundreds that have been done in recent years. While some have reported worrisome results, others have found no cause for concern.
"Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies performed on biotech crops to date, including more than a hundred feeding studies, confirm the safety of these products," said Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher. The company says GMO technology yields crops that are no different than conventional crops.
Each side of the issue claims bias affects the other's findings. Many experts say this underscores the need for the government to get involved.
"The problem is the rate at which this stuff is being introduced with no real safety testing," said Dave Schubert, head of the cellular neurobiology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. "There is an illusion that these crops are safety tested (by regulators). But there is no requirement for that. None."
"GENERALLY RECOGNIZED AS SAFE"
The U.S. Congress has never passed a law regulating genetically modified crops and government agencies do not require independent safety testing. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps promote GM crops for international trade.
The United States has also resisted calls for labeling of GMOs, though more than 60 other countries, including member nations of the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia, Turkey and South Africa, require standards of mandatory food labeling of GMOs.
When companies want to commercialize a new GMO, the United States relies on a "coordinated framework" between the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to assess applications.
Regulators rely chiefly on research and data supplied by the companies to assess risks to other crops and the environment, or to determine if the crop is substantially different than what is already on the market.
The government says that if GMOs are functionally similar to other foods or food additives, they can be "generally recognized as safe." The FDA, which has primary responsibility for ingredients used in food, says companies have "a legal duty" to ensure the foods are safe.
FDA is aware of calls for independent safety testing of GMO crops used for food. But FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky said the agency is satisfied with the current system.
"We believe that our consultation process is working well and protective of the public health," she said. "We consider all relevant data and information," including sources other than the companies developing the crops, she said.
USDA and EPA said while they don't conduct safety testing, they do "risk assessments" to protect health and the environment. Officials at both agencies say the framework already ensures safety and they see no credible research showing harm from GMOs, also called genetically engineered (GE) crops.
"While unsubstantiated claims have been made regarding the potential impacts of GE crops on food safety and the environment, these have not stood up to scientific scrutiny," the EPA said in a statement.
But researchers who criticize the government's system note that genetic modification involves combinations of genes that would not occur naturally. They warn that it could unexpectedly produce a new toxin or allergen that harms humans and animals.
Rigorous safety tests should be done, they say.
This summer, the American Medical Association's Council on Science and Public Health joined the chorus pushing for stronger regulation. Although the AMA council said no "overt" consequences on human health had been reported from GMOs, it called for "mandatory" pre-market safety assessments.
"On one side you have people who say no problem. But there are a number of these studies that do raise questions about health," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, which says biotech crops have benefits but should be labeled. "They need to be followed up on."
Labeling would be the first step toward identifying any safety problems, advocates say. In California, a new poll by Pepperdine University issued Thursday showed supporters of the labeling measure leading opponents 48.3 percent to 40.2 percent.
Heavy advertising by biotech crop backers has reduced support in recent weeks. The opponents say labeling will drive up costs for food companies, wreak havoc in the supply chain and ultimately confuse consumers.
"These are the most tested, examined and scrutinized products ever in the history of agriculture," said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) trade group, which opposes labeling and tighter regulation.
"For 20 years, we have been consuming trillions of food products enhanced through biotechnology without a single credible concern," she said.
Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for the California Right to Know campaign, said the battle appeared to be getting tougher, but still predicted victory.
"In the end, Californians will value knowing what's in their food," she said.
(Reporting By Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by David Gregorio)