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WASHINGTON • Monsanto Co. and other biotechnology giants are throwing support behind a bill to create new national standards for genetically engineered crops, in a move critics say is intended to head off more meaningful regulation.

The bill by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, and supported by three St. Louis-area members of Congress, would not mandate disclosure on food products of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in all cases.

Instead, it would require the Food and Drug Administration to conduct a safety review of new plant varieties from genetic engineering before they enter the food chain, and allow the FDA to require labeling if it believes it necessary to protect consumer health and safety.

Companies that want to produce and identify non-GMO food would do so voluntarily, but producers would not be required to say their products came from GMOs.

Supporters of the national standards say they want to avoid a hodgepodge of conflicting state laws. Creve Coeur-based Monsanto has flexed its lobbying muscle behind the bill, which is scheduled to be debated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday.

Food-safety groups say the bill is really an attempt to suppress overwhelming consumer consensus for full disclosure. They derisively call Pompeo’s bill the “DARK Act” — for “Denying Americans the Right to Know.”

Voters in four states — Oregon, California, Washington and Colorado — have in recent elections defeated state GMO-labeling requirements after Monsanto and other opponents spent heavily against them.

But legislators in Vermont passed a law making it the first state to require GMO labeling on some products. It kicks in next July and is being challenged in court by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and others.

That has created an urgency for Congress to do something after a similar Pompeo bill failed last year.

Pompeo said scientists have concluded GMO crops are safe and he sees them as essential to feeding an exploding global population. Despite arguments he’s defying Republican states-rights roots, he said that “we need to make sure we can feed the world, and bio-engineering and biotechnology will do that. And we cannot have “a state-by-state system” that will set up scores and scores of different rules,” he told the Post-Dispatch.

Another House bill that would require labeling of genetically engineered ingredients on all food and beverages sold in the United States has been introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon. But Pompeo’s bill is getting more attention because more than 400 food companies and associations have thrown their weight behind it.

“We really do think there is a lot of momentum behind the legislation,” said Claire Parker, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, whose members range from the Alaska Farm Bureau to Monsanto, Dow and DuPont. “There is a real urgency to go with it. The Vermont situation really puts pressure on the need for Congress to act.”

Without national standards, she said, “companies are going to have to start preparing and at the federal level, I think, people see what could happen if we end up with a patchwork, with state-by-state legislation.”

That would be a nightmare for processors and consumers, food industry advocates say.

But food safety groups say the Pompeo bill would allow companies to hide basic information that 90 percent of consumers want. The progressive website CommonDreams called the bill “Monsanto’s dream” and an “anti-consumer, anti-choice, anti-labeling, pro-GMO law.”

“I honestly hope and believe that some thoughtful companies will work with consumer advocates to craft a national solution that provides a nonjudgmental disclosure on the back of the package,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

He pointed out that President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to require GMO labeling. The administration has not taken a position on Pompeo’s bill, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he favors a national GMO labeling policy.

A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found that 88 percent of scientists think GMOs are safe but only 37 percent of consumers do.

GMO backers say no peer-reviewed study has declared genetically modified crops unsafe for human consumption, and that their use has lessened the use of pesticides and lowered carbon emissions because farmers have to do less weed control.

Pompeo blamed opposition on an “enormous marketing campaign on the part of folks who have tried to provide disinformation for a long time.”

But food-safety groups say GMOs have led to an explosion in the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, which the World Health Organization declared possibly carcinogenic.

“Until recently, few scientists or consumers understood the connection between GMOs and this dangerous weed killer,” Faber said.

Faber said that “a lot of powerful and well-funded interest pressure is being put on members” and that “the food and biotech industry are throwing everything they have at this.”

Monsanto spent $410,000 a month lobbying Congress and federal agencies in the first three months this year on all issues, including Pompeo’s bill.

“Like every other company, we invest in lobbying efforts to provide our input into legislation and policy decision-making,” Monsanto spokesman Billy Brennan said.

He said the Pompeo bill “would establish a uniform, science-based voluntary food labeling standard for products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Additionally, the bill will create a national GMO-free certification program, establishing a consistent and understandable labeling framework for consumers across America.”

He said Monsanto and its allies “have contacted every member of Congress” to urge passage of the Pompeo bill.

Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin; Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth; and John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, are among 60 co-sponsors. Shimkus sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee that will have the first hearing on the bill. He said it’s “real clear” that science says GMOs are safe, and that emotion and the “fear of the unknown” have fueled the opposition.

Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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