The US government has passed a bill that will see the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fund a US$3M campaign to promote genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.
The bill, agreed upon to avert government shutdown in the face of a tumultuous week in US politics and funding disagreements, allocated the funding to “consumer outreach and education regarding agricultural biotechnology”, the Washington Post reported on 3 May.
According to the newspaper, the money would be used to highlight “the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic and humanitarian impacts” of GM crop and food products.
There was no decisions on when the campaign would launch or what form it would ultimately take, the Washington Post wrote.
The funding decision came in the aftermath of more than 50 agricultural and food industry groups sending a letter on 18 April to the Congress, urging it to counter “a tremendous amount of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology in the public domain”.
According to a Pew Research Center study in 2016, 39% of American adults considered GM foods worse for health than unmodified equivalents, which most scientists disagree with.
Another Pew study from July 2015 showed that 88% of American Association for the Advancement of Science members consider GM foods safe to eat.
Mark Rieger, the dean of the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and one of the signees of the letter, told the Washington Post that he saw the alleged misconception as a “communication issue” instead of a political question.
“Clearly communication of the benefits of biotechnology from the scientific community has not gone well and this presents an opportunity to engage with the public in a more meaningful dialogue,” Rieger said.
Critics, however, have argued that the issue is “inherently political” due to financial ties between lawmakers and the agribiotech industry.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics data, agribusiness interest groups donated more than US$26M to political campaigns. Republican House of Representatives member Robert Aderholt, for example, who chairs the House agriculture appropriations committee and is a “defender of GMO education funding”, received US$10,000 from Monsanto in 2016.
Other opposing arguments have centred around whether GM foods – while safe to eat – have environmental or social impacts that should be considered and whether it is the government’s position to communicate the pro-GMO message.
“[Monsanto has] a marketing problem. But Monsanto has plenty of money to advocate for GMOs. Why do we need to use taxpayer dollars?” asked Andy Kimbrell, executive director at the NGO Center for Food Safety.
Republican House member Nita M Lowley echoed Kimbrell’s message, saying: “It is not the responsibility of the FDA to mount a government-controlled propaganda campaign to convince the American public that genetically modified foods are safe.”
Lowey, who had attempted to get the GMO campaign funding struck from the bill, added that the FDA’s mission was to “regulate the safety of [the] food supply and medical devices”.