Now supported by more than three-quarters of state lawmakers, legislation that would require all genetically engineered food to be labeled won praise from proponents Tuesday as a consumer protection that would help people make informed choices about what to eat.
It is estimated that the legislation which would require the labeling of all GMO food is being supported by over 75% of Massachusetts lawmakers. This law is being pushed in order to allow consumers to make informed food choices.
The Genetic Engineering Transparency Food and Seed Labeling Act was filed by Representatives Todd Smola and Ellen Story. It demands that all food being sold in Massachusetts needs to be labeled if it has been genetically modified or contains any genetically-modified organisms.
During a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, organic famer Richard Robinson stated, “I want informed consumers. I want my consumers to know where their food is from, whether they’re buying it from me, whether they’re buying it from Whole Foods or whether they’re buying it from Market Basket. I think they have the right to know.”
This bill was seen before by legislators, but has not received this level of support until recently. The year 2013 was the last filing of this bill which saw only eight legislators signing on as co-sponsors. However, this year there were a total of 154 lawmakers who chose to back the bill.
Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have already passed laws within their respective states to require GMO labeling in all of their food. Those who oppose the bill claim that the message consumers will take away from GMO labeling is that these foods are unsafe when there are not enough tests to support the claim that all GMO foods are hazardous to human health.
The board chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics and a professor at Tufts by the name of Sheldon Krimsky says that while he believes that biotechnology can benefit humanity, his own research has concluded that there is no definite answer to whether or not genetically-modifying plants that are used for human consumption is completely safe.
Krimsky states, “If you were building an airplane, a Boeing, let’s just say, and you ran 95 safe tests, and on five tests the fuselage broke and the power supply went off, you wouldn’t just leave those five tests alone and say you have a safe plane.”
On the other side of the argument is Ritchard Engelhardt from the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He said that the national trade group which he represents are in favor of voluntary labeling, but feels as though the mandatory labeling will “falsely imply differences where none exist,” referring to the relationship between conventional and GM products.
Engelhardt along with Greg Costa, the Director of State Affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association warned that GMO labeling might confuse and scare consumers into thinking that a food was unsafe. They further claimed that consumer distrust in GMOs will have a negative impact on the businesses that produce GMOs. Engelhardt further points out that there are 77,817 people who are employed by the biotechnology industry in Massachusetts alone.
Englelhardt also said, “We strongly urge the Legislature to consider the damage done to one of Massachusetts’ largest industries when the very science that underpins that industry is called into question.”
Although Costa said he agreed with allowing consumers to be informed of their food choices, he also said “there isn’t always anything to know…. There’s no real knowledge that is imparted here. I understand that it’s a matter of curiosity, just like I might be curious if a food is harvested by hand.” He says that genetic modifications are processed out of foods before they reach the dinner table.
Those who opposed the GMO labeling bill found themselves severely outnumbered by those in favor of it. Many of those supporting the bill had bright green stickers that read “LABEL GMOs.” When Costa and Engelhardt had finished speaking, the committee members admitted that they had allowed them to have more time because they were likely the only ones there opposed to the bill.
In reference to the stickers that supporter wore, Representative Brian Mannal claimed jokingly that it was “proof that labeling is working out there.” He later gave his personal testimony before the committee about how he had lost 35 pounds and noticed a huge overall improvement in his health when he chose to eat only non-GMO and organic foods.
“The fact is, you don’t inject pig DNA into an orange because it’s nutritious. You do that because you’re getting something out of the product besides what nature intended,” Mannal said during his testimony. His main point was that the genetically-modifying of foods was not meant to add any nutritional value to them, but to increase crop yields which would in turn increase the profits of the corporations behind them.
A number of other constituents and legislators were also urging representatives to support the GMO labeling bill. A total of 375 residents in the district of Representative Cory Adkins had written her letters to demand their “right to know what’s in their food.” Another representative, Denise Provost, said that this was “one of the biggest issues” that her constituents are concerned about right now.
Consumers Union recently did a poll of consumers and found that 92% of consumers want GMO foods to be labeled. Jean Halloran of Consumers Union said, “Voluntary labeling is not sufficient. Organic food is great, but it’s only 5% of the food supply, and it’s more expensive.”
More than 30 people were still set to testify by the time the hearing approached its fourth hour Tuesday afternoon.
Before the hearing, as people ate their lunch next to a fountain, dozens of others pushing for GMO labeling gathered nearby on a patch of Boston Common grass, claiming that the lack of regulation and scientific inquiry into the technology should be cause for concern.
“Farmers were among the first to discover this technology and became concerned about it,” said Jack Kittredge, of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking Republican on House Ways and Means, and Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, both told the News Service they are not sure whether there are actual health effects caused by consuming GMO food but they believe it should be labeled.
Asked if there are any lawmakers who do believe that GMOs are dangerous, Smola said, “Not that I know yet.”
The GMO-labeling bill has 29 supporters in the 40-member Senate and 125 supporters in the 160-person House, according to the bill’s backers.
Story, an Amherst Democrat and member of House leadership, said, “I’ve been filing this thing for 10 years,” and said, “This is the year for it to pass.”
Chipotle, a popular burrito chain, claims it was the first “national restaurant company” to disclose its GMO ingredients and was later the first to remove all GMO products from its restaurants. Other companies market their products as GMO-free, but Smola said consumers should have that information about every food product.
“You can do that, but at the end of the day the whole intent of what this bill is all about is the fact that we want that information to be on every product,” Smola said in an interview.
“If people want to know what’s in their food we should be able to have labels on the food,” Rushing said in an interview. Asked if he believes there is any health effect from eating GMO ingredients, Rushing said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”