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Despite National Efforts, Texas Not Enthusiastic About GMO Labeling

A small group of Texas farmers and environmental advocates is pushing for the labeling of genetically modified foods. But the effort has received little interest from Texas' Republican-dominated Legislature or from major agribusinesses.

Gerald Cole, owner of Organicare Farms in Taylor, checks his kale plants. The vegetables are grown using aquaponics, a system in which waste matter from fish in tanks is broken down and used as nutrients for the plants.

*Clarification appended

When Eric Herm heard in 2005 that genetically modified cottonseeds were the latest innovation on the market, he thought he should plant the crop on his family farm near Lubbock.

“I was like, ‘What’s so bad about this,’” he said of the seeds, which are a cheaper way to help crops resist weed and insect damage. “We’re saving money and labor.”

After learning that the “seeds are injected with the genes of herbicides and pesticides,” Herm became critical of the product. “I didn’t want to be consuming that,” he said. “And neither would you.”

Now, Herm is advocating a requirement to include warning labels on consumer products with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. He is among a small group of farmers and environmental advocates pushing for the labeling of GMO products in Texas. But the push is getting little support from the Republican-dominated state leadership or from major agribusinesses.

“I haven’t had a single constituent mention support for GMO labeling to me,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, a member of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Even if a measure were introduced, he added, it would face a difficult road in the Legislature. 

Herm said it was a struggle to get people’s attention. “Where I live, 90 percent of the people were looking at me like I was saying the aliens are coming,” he said.

GMO products, which are made from planting seeds with engineered DNA, make up about 90 percent of cash crops like cotton, corn and soybeans nationwide, according to the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, which supports labeling. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration supports voluntary labeling. GMO foods are required to meet the same safety standards as other foods.

Maine and Connecticut require GMO products to be labeled, and 26 other states have considered legislation. In Texas, there has been no such proposal, though interest has grown. Austin-based Whole Foods Market announced that by 2018, it would label products with genetically modified ingredients.

Most farmers oppose GMO labeling because it brings unnecessary attention to the product, which could slow sales, said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau, which represents agricultural producers across Texas, including large agribusinesses. 

“We don’t need to label something that is absolutely safe,” Hall said.

But activists say the issue is about keeping consumers informed.

“In the U.S., we don’t label dangerous foods — we take it off the marketplace,” said Colin O’Neil, the director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety. “We’re not saying these products are dangerous, either. We’re just saying consumers have the right to know.”

Some labeling proponents say agribusinesses have lobbied against their efforts. “For a long time, these agribusinesses have been incredibly powerful in keeping GMO labeling out of the Legislature,” said Sara Smith, program director of the nonprofit Texas Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.

Organic farmers like Herm and Gerald Cole of Taylor, who support GMO labeling, said their smaller numbers were at a disadvantage against food conglomerates.

“They can lobby Congress for their best interest,” Cole said. “We just can’t.”

Hall said he was unaware of the millions spent on lobbying, but added: “There is nothing wrong with it. We’re opposed to labeling, and we’re not afraid to say so.”

Disclosure: Whole Foods Market was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2010 and 2011. The Texas Farm Bureau was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012 and 2013. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

*Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's stance on lobbying. The FDA supports voluntary labeling, and GMO foods are required to meet the same safety standards as other foods.

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