By RICHIE DAVIS Gazette Contributing Writer

Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Desfilhes
Image source:
Jean-Marc Desfilhes, Wikimedia

On the one hand, Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, says her constituents include scientists who insist there’s no health danger from eating genetically engineered foods in small quantities. On the other hand, plenty of her constituents are very concerned that genetically modified foods are dangerously toxic or at least that not enough is known about them.

Story, who has filed bills calling for labeling foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, told an Amherst hearing that “there may be much more to know about this than I know at this point. Taking it seriously, learning more about it and maybe putting the brakes on is probably a good idea.”

That was back in 2007, when Story’s first GMO labeling bill was one of the few efforts at legislative action in a state that is also home to a large biotechnology sector.

Today, the Legislature is weighing four bills — including one co-sponsored by Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange — on labeling GMOs in food. Some express doubts that Massachusetts will take action on the issue this year, joining with legislation in Connecticut and Maine. There is also legislation pending in Vermont. Story and others say they’ve seen a dramatic increase in the level of interest in taking action.

“Absolutely, there’s much more interest this year,” Story said after a Statehouse hearing that drew a packed gathering this month. “There are colleagues who are filing their own (GMO labeling) bills who I never would have expected to do so. I think it’s because there’s more publicity, more public awareness and more agitation on the part of people who are nervous about something that’s new enough, and potentially harmful, although I think the jury’s out on that.”

Story, who keeps in her Statehouse office an empty Skittles box labeled “This product contains genetically engineered ingredients” as an example of what her labeling legislation would require, explains, “It doesn’t take a stand on the merit or the demerits. It just says we should know what we’re buying, what we’re eating. It doesn’t say, ‘So don’t buy it.’”

Story, who has also introduced a bill that would require a similar label on genetically modified seeds, says there is plenty of lobbying taking place by the food industry, which argues that an informational label is tantamount to a warning.

Story, whose GMO labeling bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has also been visited by some representatives of Mead Johnson, a manufacturer of baby formula, agreeing that there should be labels, but that it should come on a federal level.

While she won’t openly predict the odds of something passing this year, Story does say, “There’s a better chance this year than in preceding years, because there’s so much more buzz around.”

There’s also more riding on the legislation, since both Connecticut’s and Maine’s GMO labeling bills are contingent on similar action in neighboring states.

Chemical giant Monsanto, on its website, states, “The safety of our products is our first priority, and multiple health societies, hundreds of independent scientific experts and dozens of governments around the world have determined that foods and ingredients developed through biotechnology or genetic modification (GM) are safe.”

Monsanto adds that while it supports voluntary labeling by food companies, “We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks. Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”

Not proven safe

Jack Kittredge, policy director for the state charter of Northeast Organic Farmers of America, testified in support of the GMO food bills. Kittredge says the state has a compelling interest in labeling, to counter potential litigation over interstate commerce and biotechnology or food industry arguments that their “free speech rights” are being violated by having to include a GMO label. Another bill would also call for labels on dairy and meat products derived from animals fed genetically engineered feed.

“I’d be very surprised if a bill got out this year,” said Kittredge, who advocates for the four bills to be combined.

“Consumer groups are just starting to get mobilized this year,” he said. Only by buying organic food can someone know that it’s free of GMOs, Kittredge noted, especially when it comes to meats and dairy products such as milk and eggs, where feed may otherwise be genetically modified.

Pat Fiero of Leverett, who launched a MoveOn.Org petition recently to push for passage of the legislation — a petition that garnered more than 8,000 signatures in its first week — testified before the House Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture last month. “Contrary to industry claims, GMOs have not been proven safe, and a growing body of independent, peer-reviewed studies have linked their consumption to allergies, infertility, immune system problems, gastrointestinal disruption, cancer, and a host of other diseases,” Fiero said.

She added, “More than 60 other countries around the world inform their citizens if their food is genetically engineered, and national polls consistently show that more than 90 percent of Americans want to share in this same basic human right.”

Also testifying was Craig Fear, a Northampton nutritional therapist, who told the legislative panel, “When GMOs came into our food supply in the mid-1990s we’ve seen a corresponding spike in many chronic health conditions including digestive problems, food allergies, reproductive problems and autism. … Well over 80 percent of all processed food in America contains GMOs.”

He added, “I can almost guarantee you that all of you on this committee are regularly consuming GMOs without knowing it. They are so prevalent in our food supply that it’s almost impossible to avoid them. If you go out to eat in restaurants, you’re eating them. If you shop in supermarkets, you’re eating them.”

Anthony Samsel, a researcher who has done consulting work for the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies, testified, “The safety of consumers is now at risk from these foods.”

He added, “The majority of genetically engineered food is sprayed with glyphosate and those residues are present in the food sold to Americans. We have not been genetically engineered to resist the effects of glyphosate and neither has our beneficial gut bacteria. Glyphosate herbicide is not safe for human consumption and can cause devastating effects to our biology.”

Monsanto says “proteins introduced into commercially available biotech crops have been assessed for safety” related to allergens, toxins, digestibility” and other parameters.

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