This year has been a banner year for citizen activists concerned about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in our food. Beginning with the narrow 51 percent to 49 percent defeat of a ballot initiative calling for statewide labeling in California last fall, activist energy has spread to a similar measure, I-522, in Washington state to be decided this fall. In addition, numerous labeling bills have been filed in state legislatures across the country, and passed this summer in Connecticut and Maine.
Why such passion about GMOs in our food? Why, according to a poll published in the New York Times in July, do 93 percent of respondents want transgenic food to be labeled? Why has the price premium garnered by non-GMO soybeans—compared to those raised from GMO seed—doubled in the last two years?
Americans are growing increasingly suspicious of this new technology, which inserts genes from foreign organisms into food crops, for three main reasons:
• The FDA, the agency designated to regulate GMO foods, neither requires nor conducts testing as to their health or safety. Instead, it relies on studies conducted by the biotech companies wishing to commercialize them. It tells such companies that they, not the FDA, are responsible for assuring the safety of these crops for human consumption.
• More and more independent studies are emerging reporting serious health consequences associated with eating GMOs. Particularly disturbing is a 2011 Canadian finding by doctors that Bt toxins, from GMO crops engineered to kill pests, are showing up in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women and in 80 percent of their fetuses’ umbilical cords.
• The agricultural biotechnology industry actively opposes labeling GMOs in food and has donated millions of dollars to campaigns to fight labeling. What do they know about these products and why don’t they want us to know it? Does this remind you of the tobacco industry?
Opponents of labeling try to scare voters by claiming that labeling will increase the cost of food. But independent studies, and the European experience with GMO labeling, show that this is not true. Opponents also argue that anyone wishing to avoid GMOs can just buy organic food. While this is true, many Americans cannot afford to buy only organic foods. Neither should they have to pay more to avoid ingredients they don’t want.
Five bills currently in the Massachusetts legislature call for mandatory labeling of GMOs. Hundreds of voters turned out this spring to testify in support of the mandatory labeling required by these bills. But all five are still in committee. Unless voted out favorably, they will die in committee, and consumers will have no chance to address this problem locally. Even worse, the labeling bills passed in Connecticut and Maine this year contain “triggers” that delay implementation of labeling until adjacent states pass similar bills. So our failure to act condemns residents of these states to continued uncertainty about their food as well.
A coalition of groups (MASSPIRG, Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs, NOFA/Mass, and MoveOn.org) has been pushing to get the Massachusetts bills voted favorably out of committee. Everyone who cares about food and good health should contact his or her state representative and senator and urge them to press for GMO labeling.•
Jack Kittredge is policy director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association and co-owner of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre.