Joint Ag Committee looks at GMOs during first meetingWritten by Saige Albert
Riverton –During their first meeting of the 2015 interim, the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee, Representative Mike Greear brought forward information on one topic that has been prevalent across the U.S. – genetically modified organisms.
“I’m involved with Wyoming Sugar, one of our processors in Worland,” Greear commented. “I understand the importance of genetic engineering and the benefits it brings to the ag community.”
He continued, “We wanted to get some information out, in particular related to the ag community, on GMOs.”
“Sugarbeets and sugar processing are key to Wyoming,” said Richard McKamey, chairman and CEO of Wyoming Sugar Company, during the meeting. “Sugar is one of our value-added products. We produce the sugarbeets, process them and make sugar – most of which goes out of state.”
McKamey mentioned that three of the remaining 22 sugar factories in the nation are in Wyoming, and 2 million tons of Wyoming coal are used annually to power those factories.
“A 2010 study showed $214 million in direct expenditures, 1,218 direct jobs and wages of $16.8 million come from the sugar industry,” he continued. “Sugar is an important part of the Wyoming economy.”
Sugar is vital to Wyoming, he said, and GMOs are an important piece of maintaining profitability in the industry for growers.
John Snyder, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and Worland-area farmer, mentioned that the sugar industry has seen many changes in its 100 years in Wyoming.
“From 1974 through the 1990s, we suffered low prices,” Snyder mentioned. “We had increased production costs, and with that, we were losing farmers and factories.”
From 1974 to 2008, 38 sugar factories closed across the country, and in 2002, growers in the Worland area purchased Imperial Sugar’s factory after they declared bankruptcy.
“As growers, we really needed to develop ways to help our fellow growers to be more efficient and more profitable, so we looked at biotechnology,” Snyder said. “We felt that biotech would provide stability to sugarbeet co-ops in Wyoming, and in 2006, the first biotech beets went into field trial in Idaho.”
Changes in challenges
In 2007, Wyoming sugarbeet growers were the first in the nation to grow Roundup Ready sugarbeets and market their products commercially.
Within only a few years, Roundup Ready sugarbeets skyrocketed to 95 percent adoption of the technology, and today, 100 percent of the U.S. and Canadian sugarbeet crop is Roundup Ready.
“It happened that fast because there were benefits to growers, factories, communities and the environment,” Snyder mentioned.
Snyder noted that the while pressure was temporarily relieved with the advent of biotech sugarbeets, a new pressure has emerged from the product.
“There are people who are afraid of GMOs and are diverting purchases, which puts pressure on our business,” he said.
Rebecca Larson, a research agronomist from Western Sugar Cooperative, explained that GMOs are organisms whose genetic makeup is altered using biotechnology.
She explained that genetic modification can take a number of forms – including herbicide resistance and insecticidal properties, improved nutritional value or resistance to natural diseases.
“A lot of people think that it is unnatural to have biotechnology, but there is nothing about crop development that happens naturally,” Larson said. “Many crops have been developed through assistance by man.”
For example, she lists watermelon, kale, carrots, sunflowers and other products that have been created as a result of different types of genetic modification, including hybridization with embryo rescue and chemical/radiation mutagenesis.
While those types of genetic modification also occur in a laboratory, just like GMOs, GMOs are the only crops mandated to be regulated by the government and thoroughly tested prior to commercialization. They are also the only lab-based food product not able to be labeled as natural or organic.
“Sugarbeets are unique,” Larson continued. “We are not actually selling the crop. We are selling the product refined from the crop.”
She further noted that sugar from genetically modified beets is indistinguishable from any other sugar after analysis in a laboratory. Even if the protein that provides for Roundup tolerance was detectible, it would be safe, as it is made from the same amino acids found in every other protein that humans regularly ingest.
“There have been over 30 states that have attempted to pass more than 70 ballot measures to do with labeling and usage of GMOs,” Snyder explained. “Our industry has spent over $100 million fighting the issues. Legislation would be extremely complex, driving up costs to consumers.”
Labeling measures could initiate barriers for interstate shipment of products – particularly if labeling measures aren’t standardized. For example, he cited labeling requirements from Vermont, which require sugar from genetically modified sugarbeets to be labeled. The sugar produced in Michigan is used in sour cherries, which would also require labels if shipped to Vermont.
“It makes things very complex as far as the movement of goods in and out of different states,” he said.
“This is a national issue,” mentioned Snyder.
With an emphasis on state’s rights, Snyder also mentioned that an initiative working through Congress now is the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599) – a bipartisan bill that would standardize labeling throughout the U.S.
“It takes care of a different patchwork of labeling laws that may come up,” he said. “We do not want a patchwork of laws. We do not want one state having one labeling standard and a different standard in another.”
Greear added that, as a result, he would advocate for a joint resolution sponsored by the Joint Ag Committee to address the importance of genetic engineering, GMOs and the necessity of interstate commerce that can be achieved through consistent, fair and accurate labeling.
“Resolutions are a good way to take a position to set a base policy,” Greear said. “I think what we are proposing is a way to get information out. We aren’t anti-labeling. We are looking for uniform and consistent labeling, since we know that is probably on the horizon.”
As a result of the discussion, Senator Gerald Geis moved to direct the Legislative Services Office to draft a resolution looking at the benefits of GMOs and to support a national labeling standard. The motion passed unanimously, and the Joint Ag Committee will review the resolution and vote on whether or not to sponsor it during their September meeting.
Cattle rustling hit the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture State and Public Lands and Water Resources list of interim topics this year, and the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) was on hand to discuss the issue.
WLSB director Steve True mentioned that the number of cases of livestock rustling reported tended to be between 50 and 60 each year over the last 10 years. To obtain data on the number of head in these cases, True noted that it would be necessary to do a hand search through records.
The study topic comes along with concern from citizens, particularly those on the Wind River Reservation and in the Sheridan area. Reports of livestock theft in those areas, as well as others across the state, have plagued producers in recent times. Producers who testified during the meeting reported they were unhappy with how the WLSB was handling cases.
Senator Leland Christensen of Teton County mention, “If we had 52 cases in 2014, that is one per week. With the price of cattle today, that means potentially millions of dollars.”
“With the data we have, I wondering what we can do as the Legislature to make sure that Wyoming isn’t a rustler-friendly state,” Christensen said.
An article in next week’s Roundup will look at the Joint Ag Committee’s discussion on livestock theft, as well as testimony from producers in Sheridan County and the Wind River Reservation, more in-depth.