R.I. Lawmakers Debate GMO-Labeling Bills

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A five-year legislative effort to require labeling of genetically modified foods continued last week with a hearing of four House bills.

For the second straight year, Rep. Blake Filippi, I-New Shoreham, promoted his reverse-labeling bill that would require grocery stores with gross annual sales of more than $500,000 to post signs declaring that all its foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) unless otherwise labeled. The bill in essence puts the labeling requirement on makers of GMO-free products.

Filippi explained the distinction between cross-pollinated plants and foods that are genetically modified. GMO foods, he said, are created by combing the DNA of plants, chemicals and even animals. Filippi described a cabbage that was spliced with a scorpion, and hybrid plants that are fused with pesticides such as glyphosate. This genetic engineering of species has raised concerns about the potential for health and safety of the foods among advocates for GMO labeling.

“GMOs are not something that is created in nature,” Filippi said. “(They are) essentially playing god if you will.”

Rep. Raymond Hull, D-Providence, sponsored a bill that would require labeling of raw and packaged foods that contain GMOs. “All we’re asking is to let us know what’s in our food. It’s simple, it’s not asking much, we just want to know,” he said.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Dennis Canario, D-Portsmouth, would mandate labeling for wholesale and retail foods, agricultural feed and seeds. It would exclude alcohol, restaurants, farm stands and farmers markets.

“Every since GMOs have been introduced 20 years ago, consumers have been left in the dark,” Canario said.

Opponents of GMO labeling at the state level reason that a federal mandate would make it easier and less expensive for food manufactures to comply, rather than having separate labels for each state. But Canario disputed the viability of national labeling, arguing that corporate lobbyists have stalled Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from acting.

“Our past FDA commissioner was a former Monsanto lobbyist,” he said. “You connect the dots.”

Paul Pescatello, of the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council, said science proves that GMOs are safe. GMO labeling, he said, scares people from eating otherwise healthy and more affordable food. This antiquated thinking puts a scarlet letter on the region’s biosciences industry, he said.

“Rhode Island must continue to be confidently known as a hospitable place to science and rational analysis,” Pescatello said.

Wayne Salisbury, a farmer of sweet corn in Johnston, said GMO crops give farmers more flexibility. “I don’t see a whole heck of a lot of reason to go down that road,” he said, referring to labeling laws.

Salisbury said he limits his use of GMO corn seeds because of safety questions, but he likes having the option. Pesticide-resistant GMOs crops can reduce the amount of herbicides he sprays on his crops, he said.

Chris Miller of Ben & Jerry’s said GMO labeling wouldn’t raise prices and has nothing to do with science. “It has nothing to do with and does not have an impact on what a farmer may or may not plant.”

It’s also not a question of safety, Miller said. It’s simply about disclosure of something that is different. GMO seeds are unique because they require patents and therefore should be labeled, he said.

GMO labeling is gaining momentum at the state level. Thirty states have introduced bills, and Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed laws. Vermont’s bill takes effect July 1. Maine and Connecticut have trigger clauses that require neighboring states to also pass GMO labeling rules before theirs become law. Most Massachusetts legislators also support GMO labeling bills. GMO labeling is required in 64 countries.

Unilever, a British-Dutch multinational that owns Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s, has openly opposed state efforts, such as in California, to legislate GMO labeling.

Rhode Island food manufacturers, retailers, food dealers and the hospitality industry also oppose the legislation because of concerns that it will increase food prices.

The bills were held for further study.