Legislation, lawsuits and certainly debate continue to escalate on the issue of bioengineered crops, ingredients and labeling amid an often confusing landscape of private and government efforts at county, state and federal levels. At the same time, plantings of bioengineered crops, also referred to as genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s), increased an estimated 3% globally in 2013.

Commodity and food processing groups mostly have backed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 (H.R. 4432), which, among other things, would put G.M.O. labeling under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and prohibit G.M.O. labeling laws in individual states. Activist groups have opposed H.R. 4432, calling it an industry tool to circumvent their labeling concerns that tend to fall into two camps — the safety of bioengineered crops and consumers’ “right to know” what’s in their food.

It’s estimated at least 80% of the food on U.S. grocery shelves contains bioengineered ingredients, which leads some to suggest G.M.O. labeling would be useless and have little impact on food prices. But others suggest that if labels are perceived as a “warning” that G.M.O.s are unhealthy, it could drive prices higher if food manufacturers reformulate products to not include G.M.O. ingredients, which largely has been the case in Europe.

The heightened debate over G.M.O. crops and ingredients has benefited sales of certified organic foods, according to the Organic Trade Association.

“Avoiding G.M.O.s, for themselves or their children, is an increasingly important reason why parents choose organic food,” the O.T.A. said in its U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs 2014 Tracking Study, which surveyed more than 1,200 households with at least one child under the age of 18. “Almost 25% of parents buying organic said that wanting to steer clear of genetically modified foods is now one of their top reasons for selecting organic, the most in the four years the survey has been taken, and up significantly from 16% who said the same in 2013. Of the 15 reasons for buying organic that parents were asked to rate, not buying G.M.O.s showed the biggest jump by far from attitudes a year ago.”

Sales of organic products were a record $35.1 billion in 2013, up 12% from 2012, according to the O.T.A.

“Parents have become more informed about the benefits of organic, and they have also become more aware of the questions surrounding G.M.O.s,” said Laura Batcha, executive director and chief executive officer of the O.T.A. The O.T.A. survey indicated 73% of parents knew what G.M.O. stands for whether they buy organic or not. The organization, which is officially opposed to G.M.O.s, noted all organic products are G.M.O. free but not all G.M.O.-free items are organic.

At the same time, results from the United Soybean Board’s 21st annual Consumer Attitudes about Nutrition survey released last week indicated only 2% of consumers cited G.M.O.s as a barrier to eating foods or beverages, while 57% characterized the role of biotechnology as positive or had no opinion. The survey showed 71% of consumers believed G.M.O. products should be labeled, up 10% from last year’s survey.

“Although most consumers say they favor G.M.O. labeling when asked specifically, this study also demonstrates that G.M.O.s are really not a top of mind concern for the majority of consumers,” said Steve Poole, U.S.B. director of nutrition and public relations. “For example, when asked which food and nutrition trends they are paying attention to, only 4% of consumers mention G.M.O.s. We also know from other U.S.B. research that as consumers learn more about the specific benefits of biotechnology, particularly any health benefits, their perceptions become more positive.”

State labeling efforts challenged

As of midyear, three states — Connecticut, Maine and Vermont — had G.M.O. labeling requirements of various sorts signed into law. Labeling initiatives were under way in more than 20 states, but in general, state initiatives have been costly and failed to garner voter approval, as in California and Washington the past two years.

While activist groups are pushing G.M.O. labeling efforts in more states than ever, much of the focus has been on the West coast and the Northeast, especially Vermont, which moved to the forefront in part because of its unilateral effort to require G.M.O. labeling. The Vermont law, which is set to go into effect July 1, 2016, already has been challenged in court by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and others. Labeling laws in Maine and Connecticut don’t go into effect until a sufficient number of surrounding states have similar laws, thus avoiding a conflict with federal interstate commerce requirements.

In the West, Oregon has been a hotbed of G.M.O. activity. Oregon governor John Kitzhaber last fall directed the state’s agriculture department to map all G.M.O. fields across the state so buffer zones could be established to protect regular crops from cross pollinating with G.M.O. crops. While some areas of the state have voluntary mapping efforts, and many farmers have agreed to “peacefully coexist,” failed efforts in other parts of Oregon led to the governor’s directive last fall. The effort, according to a report in the Capital Press, was prompted by several instances of genetic contamination that made non-bioengineered crops unusable for export.

While some farmers and seed companies participate in the G.M.O. field mapping, others do not because of competitive reasons or fear of crop sabotage. The discovery of some bioengineered wheat in an Oregon field last year still has not been resolved, but there were some early suggestions it may have been a case of sabotage by an anti-G.M.O. group. 

The Oregon G.M.O. Right to Know petition committee has spent about $630,000 the past two months to collect enough signatures for a November ballot initiative, according to a report in the Capital Press.

Also in Oregon, Jackson county earlier this year voted to ban growing of G.M.O. crops, although that act also is expected to be challenged in court.

More than 60 countries have some type of G.M.O. labeling requirements, including Australia, Russia, China, India, Japan, Brazil and the European Union. Notable exceptions include most of Africa, Argentina, Mexico, Canada and the United States. Fewer than five countries ban imports or production of G.M.O. products.

G.M.O. products imported by countries that require G.M.O. labeling from countries that don’t require labeling generally carry G.M.O. labels in the importing countries.

“Other countries have adopted systems for approving biotech traits, but these decisions are subject to differing regulations or are overtly political, which can result in lengthy delays between approvals in importing and exporting countries,” American Soybean Association treasurer Richard Wilkins told the Senate Committee on Finance in testimony concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in June. “This is a concern because, until an importer approves a new trait, even a trace amount of that trait detected in a cargo can result in its rejection and major losses for the shipper.”

The A.S.A. supports a global low level presence policy that would allow a shipment containing a small amount of an exporting country’s approved trait not resulting in rejection by an importer who has not approved the trait.

Mr. Wilkins suggested to the Senate committee the E.U.’s labeling policy for foods containing bioengineered ingredients may be in violation of World Trade Organization commitments.

“The E.U. could have provided information to consumers without distorting trade by establishing voluntary labeling standards for non-biotech foods,” Mr. Wilkins said. “As a W.T.O. member, the E.U. is obliged to choose a less restrictive measure if one that accomplishes its objective is available.”

Perhaps the most recent example of using G.M.O.s as a trade tool involves China, which has rejected some cargoes of U.S. corn and distillers dried grains in recent months because traces of a non-approved bioengineered corn variety were found in the shipments. It generally was believed in the trade that China rejected the shipments because its own grain stocks were sufficient or heavy at the time. The actions pressured U.S. corn and feed ingredient prices.

U.S., global G.M.O. acreage increasing

Many key commodity crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa have been widely adopted by farmers globally over the past 18 years. Those six, plus a handful of specialty crops, are grown in the United States.

In its June 30 Acreage report, the U.S.D.A. included results from a national survey of selected farmers asked if they planted bioengineered corn, soybean or upland cotton seed that was resistant to herbicides, insects or both (stacked). The survey showed that 93% of the corn planted in 2014 was of bioengineered varieties, up from 90% last year, 94% of all soybean seed planted was of bioengineered varieties, up slightly from 93%, and 96% of cotton plantings were of bioengineered seed, up from 90%.

While not included in the June survey, the trade estimates about 95% of U.S. sugar beets are of bioengineered varieties, all glyphosate resistant (Roundup Ready).

But bioengineered traits other than insect and herbicide resistance also are gaining acceptance.

“Given the importance of drought on crop productivity, exacerbated by climate change, drought tolerance is judged to be an important development,” the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) said in the executive summary of its annual brief on global bioengineered crops released earlier this year. “In the United States, approximately 2,000 farmers planted about 50,000 hectares of the first biotech drought-tolerant maize,” the ISAAA said. Drought-tolerant corn technology has been donated to Africa and planting of such varieties is expected in 2017, the ISAAA said.

Indonesia has developed and approved planting of a drought-tolerant sugar cane variety and plans to commercialize it for planting in 2014, the ISAAA said. It would be the first approval of a bioengineered sugar cane variety in the world.

On a global basis, there were about 18 million farmers in 27 countries growing bioengineered crops on over 175.2 million hectares in 2013, the ISAAA said in its annual brief. Total biotech crop area increased five million hectares, or 3%, from 2012. The organization noted that 19 of the 27 countries growing bioengineered crops were developing countries and eight were industrialized countries, with 90% of the farmers planting biotech crops considered small and resource poor. Soybeans are the most widespread planted biotech crop with 84.5 million hectares in 2013, equal to 79% of global plantings. There were 57.4 million hectares of biotech corn planted, equal to 32% of global plantings, 23.9 million hectares of cotton, equal to 70% of plantings, and 8.2 million acres of canola, equal to 24% of global plantings, the ISAAA said.

According to the ISAAA, the United States leads the world with 70.1 million hectares of bioengineered crops and 90% adoption across all crops. Brazil is second with 40.3 hectares of soybeans, corn and cotton, Argentina third with the same three crops, India fourth with cotton, and Canada fifth with canola, corn, soybeans and sugar beets. Biotech area in Canada declined from 11.6 million hectares to 10.8 million hectares in 2013 as farmers decreased biotech canola area in favor of wheat. Canada’s 2013 wheat crop was record large.

The ISAAA suggested China, with only 4.2 million hectares of bioengineered crops, stood to benefit greatly from increased adoption, especially of bioengineered corn and soybeans.

“The lack of appropriate, science-based and cost/time-effective systems continues to be the major constraint to (biotech) adoption,” the ISAAA said. “Responsible, rigorous but not onerous, regulation is needed, particularly for small and poor developing countries who are ‘locked out’ completely because of the high cost of developing and gaining approval of a biotech crop.” 

Wheat, rice key exceptions to G.M.O.

The exceptions to G.M.O. crop use in the United States and globally are wheat and rice, the world’s two primary food grains. Bioengineered “golden rice,” which addresses vitamin A deficiency, may be ready for commercialization in some Asian countries by 2016. Bioengineered wheat is a bit further off.

Wheat finds itself in a difficult situation. U.S. planted wheat area at an estimated 56.5 million acres this year has declined 31.8 million acres, or 36%, since peaking at 88.3 million acres in 1981. Much of that decline has been attributed to farmers choosing to plant more profitable crops, including corn and soybeans, which have benefited from higher yields and lower production costs because of widespread adoption of bioengineered varieties. In contrast, planted area for soybeans was estimated at a record high 84.8 million acres this year, up 26% from 1981, and planted area for corn was estimated at 91.6 million acres, up 9% from 1981.

Wheat has been held back for two main reasons. First, seed companies were concerned farmers may plant seed “from the bin” rather than purchase new seed once biotech varieties were established, making it difficult for seed companies to recoup their investments. The cost of developing and commercializing a new bioengineered trait is estimated to be well over $100 million. Second, key foreign buyers will not accept bioengineered wheat, which would limit sales options and ultimately drive down prices for a crop of which about 50% of production is exported annually.

But that may be changing as wheat growers realize biotech varieties may be necessary to “keep up” with other crops. Earlier this year 16 organizations from the United States, Canada and Australia agreed to a synchronized effort to commercialize bioengineered traits in wheat. 

“Unfortunately, wheat production is on a downward trend around the world because net returns per acre often favor other crops,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, upon signing the international agreement. “Wheat demand could very well outstrip the supply in the not-so-distant future. As such, further innovation in research and biotechnology is key to realizing the promise of improved products, more sustainable production and environmental benefits.” Mr. Stallman also noted that customer choice was paramount and the group would work to meet demand for non-biotech wheat as well as use biotech varieties to ensure supply meets demand.

As consumer awareness of the G.M.O. issue increases, the accuracy of information available to the public becomes more critical, and the rhetoric between G.M.O. and non-G.M.O. factions can be expected to escalate. Many, if not most, in the agricultural community believe crop production cannot meet food demand in the years ahead without bioengineered crops, and even the ISAAA notes that biotech crops are “not a panacea” but an essential element in crop production that must include other management practices. And most in the industry don’t have a problem with G.M.O. labeling, as long as it is science-based and consistent across the country.