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U.S. GMO crop companies double down on their anti-labeling efforts

A Greenpeace activist displays and signs symbolising genetically modified maize crops during a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels November 24, 2008. Activists urged all European Union states to agree on possible changes for the EU's authorisation system for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). REUTERS/Thierry Roge
A Greenpeace activist displays and signs symbolising genetically modified maize crops during a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels November 24, 2008. Activists urged all European Union states to agree on possible changes for the EU's authorisation system for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). REUTERS/Thierry Roge

By Carey Gillam

(Reuters) - One year after the launch of a social media effort to allay consumers' concerns about the safety of foods made from genetically modified crops, U.S. companies that develop GMOs have further committed to a multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat attempts to add GMO labels to such foods.

"We are not going to sit down for that (labeling)," Cathleen Enright, spokeswoman for the effort, said in an interview. "We want people to know how their food is grown ... we support a right to know. It is the mechanism that we can’t abide."

Monsanto Co., Dow Chemical and other GMO crop backers last summer kicked off an interactive website, called GMO Answers, as the centerpiece of a broad effort to win over consumers. A speakers' tour and social media advertising are part of the effort.

The group has committed to spending millions more annually for several more years on this campaign, Enright said. She would not provide specifics on the campaign spending.

The money spent on the marketing campaign comes alongside more than $80 million spent since 2012 by the biotech and food industries to defeat mandatory labeling at the state and federal levels, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Environmental Working Group.

The companies disclosed $9.3 million in lobbying expenditures in 2013 that made reference to GE labeling and $9 million lobbying Congress in the first quarter of 2014, the report said.

Despite the efforts, the industry still is fighting an uphill battle, Enright said. Consumers and lawmakers who fear the crops are unsafe and/or environmentally harmful are seeking mandatory labeling of GMO foods in many states and at the federal level. Oregon has placed GMO labeling on its November ballot and Colorado citizens are gathering signatures for a similar ballot initiative.

Still, Enright said, the GMO Answers campaign has made notable progress in combating consumer fears, with executives from Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and others fielding more than 600 questions from the public through the website's online forum.

One point the companies are pushing is what they say is a consensus in the scientific community on the safety of their products, said Enright. Many international scientists dispute that such a consensus exists, but the industry says studies showing concerns are not valid.

The group has tracked media reports about GMOs since the campaign began and has seen "measurable change," Enright said. "We’ve seen the positive tone ... increase. That tells us we are having an impact.”

Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, which supports mandatory GMO food labeling, said the industry efforts are falling short. In May, Vermont became the first U.S. state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling law, one that requires no trigger before it takes effect July 1, 2016.

"They are losing," Faber said. "After this explosion of anti-GMO labeling lobbying.. (they) have so little to show for their efforts."

(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Bill Trott)

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