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December 20, 2014
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editorial

We say, ‘label it’


Last week, Connecticut’s legislature did the right thing when it passed a bill (the vote was 134 to 3) requiring food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy indicated he would sign the bill into law, making Connecticut the first state in the nation to pass such broad legislation.

During the very same week, as Connecticut lawmakers did the right thing, the New York State Assembly Committee on Consumer Protection and Affairs did the wrong thing by killing a proposed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) labeling bill (A3525). The New York Times reported the story this way: “The New York labeling bill was defeated in committee after members, including several who were co-sponsors of the legislation, were lobbied intensely by a representative from the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group whose members are BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroScience, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta—all major makers of genetically modified seeds and pesticides that work with them.”

As we see it, there are two issues here. The first one has to do with choice and whether consumers are entitled to the information they want and need in order to choose what food they eat. To us, this sounds like a pretty fundamental right.

The second issue has to do with how lawmakers conduct the public’s business. In a recent public opinion poll, a vast majority of Americans (82%) said they wanted GMO food to be labeled (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/04/gmo-poll_n_2807595.html). Yet, bowing to corporate influence appears to have become so routine that it’s merely business as usual in our legislative bodies and statehouses, despite the people’s wishes. And because money bestows power these days, voting is vulnerable, too, as was seen in California’s 2012 ballot initiative when Big Biotech spent $40 million to defeat a GMO labeling measure.

Let’s be clear; Big Biotech and Big Ag have a big stake in building a GMO future. Biotech crops comprise the fastest growing segment in agriculture today. More than 88% of corn and soy planted in the U.S. is genetically modified. GMO corn, canola and soybeans are ubiquitous in processed food because they are such fundamental ingredients. (Animal feed also contains these GMO ingredients allowing them into our food supply that way.)

Big Biotech argues that GMO food is safe and that consumers just don’t understand the benefits. Indeed, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has said that “the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” But for other scientists, the jury’s still out. Relatively speaking, this is still a new technology. (The first genetically engineered food plant, a tomato, was approved for market by the FDA in 1994.) One group of researchers, who challenged the AAAS’s statement, even raised concern about increased use of chemicals in agriculture. (Among the most widely disbursed GMO crops are some specifically engineered for the plants to withstand repeated application of chemical herbicides.) We agree with those scientists who have called for more long-term research on GMOs’ impact on human and animal health and on the environment.

Meantime, unlike the U.S., much of the rest of the world already is taking a more cautious approach to widespread adoption of this technology. Farmers in India, Hungary and Haiti have destroyed GMO crops. Japan has just cancelled an order of U.S. wheat after GMOs were mysteriously found in an Oregon farmer’s fields. (The strain was never approved for use outside of testing.) In France, citizens have sabotaged GMO testing in a vineyard, and the European Union generally has taken a more cautious approach. We, too, see caution as being prudent.

Interestingly, the U.S. food industry is starting to get the public’s message; Whole Foods Market, for example, is seeking more products without genetically engineered ingredients and last month said that it would start to require suppliers to label products with GMO ingredients. Other retailers who want non-GMO products for their customers are turning to a new non-profit organization that certifies “products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.”(www.nongmoproject.org/product-verification)

If retailers are getting the consumer’s message, why aren’t the polls? We recommend that if you want GMO food labeled in New York State, you need to ask your assembly member to bring the defeated bill back for reconsideration, and then contact members of the Assembly’s Committee on Consumer Protection and Affairs and give them a piece of your mind.

But in the end, the bottom line for us is this: it doesn’t matter whether the jury is still out or not. What matters is allowing people to make up their own minds about what they want to eat and seeing that they have the choice.

We say: label it, New York.